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Full text of "Mind's Eye: A Liberal Arts Journal Spring 2003"

Spring 2003 

Mind's Eye 



A Liberal Arts Journal 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 




On Revision 

By Karen Pepper 

Manuel Puig, Pedro Almodovar and the Politics of Camp 

By Graziana Ramsden 

Narrative of Surprising Conversions: 
Irv in New York 

By Thomas Weston Fels 

Race Relations as End Game 

Book Review by Meera Tamaya 



A Brainy Prole Among Dim Aristos 

Book Review by Meera Tamaya 



$7.50 




A Liberal Arts Journal 



SPRING 2003 



Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 



Editorial Board 

Tony Gengarelly, Managing Editor 
Robert Bence 
Bob Bishoff 
Harold Brotzman 
Sumi Colligan 
Abbot Cutler 
Steve Green 
Bill Montgomery 

Leon Peters 
Meera Tamaya 
Arlene Bouras, Copy Editor 

Advisory Board 

James MacGregor Burns, Professor of history and political science. 
University of Maryland 
Stephen Fix, Professor of English, Williams College 
Thomas Green, Professor of law and history, University of Michigan 
Mary Huber, Carnegie Foundation scholar 
Lea Newman. Professor of English emerita, Massachusetts College of Libera! Arts 
Joseph Thompson, Director of MASS MoCA 

© 2003 The Mind's Eye 
ISSN 1098-0512 

http://www.mda.mass.edu/Publications/ 
Faculty_Publications/The_Minds_Eye_spr 

The Mind's Eye, a journal of scholarly and creative work, is published twice 
annually by Massachusetts College o( Liberal Arts. While emphasizing articles 
of scholarly merit. The Mind 's Eye focuses on a general communication of idea s 
of interest to a liberal arts college. We welcome expository essays, including 
reviews, as well as fiction, poetry and art. Please refer to the inside back cover 
for a list of writer's guidelines. 

A yearly subscription to The Mind's Eye is SI 5. Send check or money order 
to The Mind's Eye, CIO Tony Gengarelly, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 
375 Church Street, North Adams, MA 01247. 



Mind's Eye 

SPRING 2003 

Editor's File 4 

On Revision 

By Karen Pepper 5 

Manuel Puig, Pedro Almoddvar and the Politics 
of Camp 

By Graziana Ramsden 19 

Narrative of Surprising Conversions: 
frv in New York 

By Thomas Weston Fels 40 

Race Relations as End Game 

Book Review by Meera Tamaya 57 

A Brainy Prole Among Dim Aristos 

Book Review by Meera Tamaya 60 

Contributors 63 



Editor's File 



When the country is embroiled in war overseas and fear 
and uncertainty stalk the land, when the governor ol 
Massachusetts seeks to arbitrarily reconfigure public 
higher education in light of a budgetary nightmare, it is reassuring to 
contemplate the products of intellectual skill and achievement pub- 
lished in the pages of The Mind's Eye. This issue is no exception, with 
Graziana Ramsden's marvelous tapestry woven from the works of 
Manuel Puig and Pedro Almodovar. Drawn from her Ph.D. disserta- 
tion, this account is presented here as an essay that does honor to the 
crafts of film and literary criticism. Tom Fels shares a portion of his 
longer memoir by taking us on a New York tour with several ex- 
communards from the early seventies. Fels confronts us with some 
bizarre juxtapositions and evolutions of character, as he pieces together 
past fragments of his life with present-day reality. Karen Pepper's "On 
Revision" is, indeed, a revision of her own teaching methods and a 
distillation of a variety of avenues to a more successful method of 
achieving good writing. Finally, Meera Tamaya charms and inspires 
with two reviews. Engaging the books under consideration, as well as 
the reader, she whisks us along to new places with her own enthusiasm 
for the texts. 

This issue marks the sixth year of The Mind's Eye and will be my 
last full season as Managing Editor of the journal. The next academic- 
year will, at some point, usher in a new force at the helm. 1 will re- 
main on the Editorial Board to contribute as enthusiastically and in as 
many ways as 1 can. It has, indeed, been a pleasure to witness the 
birth and evolution of The Mind's Eye. I pay tribute to those who have 
appreciated and supported the journal in so many ways over the years; 
for, ultimately, readers and contributors keep The Mind's Eye operat- 
ing, as do the members of our Editorial and Advisory Boards — mem- 
bers such as James MacGregor Burns, who recently commented: "[The 
Mind 's Eye] has a combination of variety, depth and eclecticism that is 
most refreshing, and the whole appearance, layout and typography 
continue to be most attractive. The fact that MCLA can produce as 
finished and sophisticated a journal continues to be an enormous trib- 
ute to the faculty of the college and a wonderful representation of the 
college to the world outside." 

Tony Gengarelly, Managing Editor 

i The Mind's Eye 



On Revision 



BY KAREN PEPPER 



Note: An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 18th An- 
nual National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. 

Must We Revise? 

If we start from the premise that students ought, at least occasion- 
ally, to revise their papers, then one of our tasks in teaching com- 
position is to give them techniques with which to do so. The 
premise can certainly be called into question: Why revise anything 
that is not intended for publication? Revision does, in fact, begin with 
evaluating "cost"; for a particular piece of writing, is it worth the time 
and effort? This is a crucial evaluation, but it can wisely be made only 
if one has already encountered the monster; that is, if one has al- 
ready had some experience with writing successive drafts. And what 
of those papers that seem yet to be born, the ones that, if left in the 
first draft stage, will certainly die in embryo — a mere scratching of 
the surface, hardly the full-blown development of a thesis? Revision 
is more than *doin' the comma shuffle" — it involves finding one's 
intellectual footing on unfamiliar, sometimes difficult, terrain. Suf- 
fice it to say, then, that techniques for revision — and most writers 
have them — are as essential to the student as an understanding of 
grammar; both are aspects of the craft, 



The Mind 's Eye 5 



Karen Pepper 



Motivating students to revise their work, however, at least in my 
experience, is even more difficult than eliciting an interest in the sub- 
ordinate clause. Their point, and it is well taken, is that they have 
already done the work. They will often try to bargain for the grade; 
"Couldn't you just grade the first draft, instead of making us do it 
again?" How can I teach them that they are not just doing the same 
thing twice? Perhaps there is a way to acknowledge both first and 
second drafts, rather than to give the first draft a grade that doesn't 
"count." Grading becomes even more problematic than usual. 

Secretly, as a writer, 1 sympathize with my students' reluctance to 
revise. No sooner am 1 faced with a first draft of my own than my 
priorities undergo a magical rearrangement: Suddenly, the time has 
come to impose a strict policy of segregation on bath and hand tow- 
els, and I will proceed to waste the morning mindlessly sorting out 
the linen cabinet. In recent years, however, 1 have learned to value — 
and to trust — revision more. The ping-pong of thought and formula- 
tion that occurs as one revises is the central act of expository writing, 
and the more one bats the ball over the net, the better the writing 
usually becomes. 

I used to begin by telling my students that for the duration of the 
term I would consider them writers, Lately, however, this statement 
has begun to ring fafse. Revision is so much the substance of writing, 
the actual work, that 1 wonder whether, in submitting one assign- 
ment after another without going back to revise the first in light of 
the third, students are doing the work of writing at all. Writers (gen- 
erally) revise; students (generally) do not. While many students are 
willing to straighten an awkward sentence here or there, that is, to 
polish their writing, they are not inclined to crumple up an entire 
first draft or — less satisfying but equally effective — to click on "select 
all" and then on "delete." In part, the difference between what writ- 
ers and students do may lie in the highly artificial time constraint of 
the semester. In part, however, it may be that in the classroom the 
question of how to revise has not been addressed directly. 

The kind of revision that interests me — the kind I am trying to 
teach — is not the going over of an established text with a fine-tooth 
comb in search of errors that spell-check may have missed: It is not 
copy-editing. Revision of that kind displaces the emphasis in writing 
from where it should lie— close to the writer's central concerns— to a 

6 The Mind's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



series of essentially mechanical tasks. Correcting errors is certainly a 
useful thing for students to learn and to practice, but it is only a mi- 
nor part of the process of revision. 

Revision, according to Liam Rector, poet and director of the 
Bennington Writing Seminars, means re-envisioning (personal com- 
munication). Similarly, Donald Murray, in his book The Craft of Revi- 
sion, writes, "Revision means to see again" (47). This sort of revision, 
f suspect, cannot be imposed from the outside. Unlike correcting, or 
polishing, a text, it cannot be done by an editor. I can correct my 
students' writing; I can let my spidery little comments extend down 
the margin, wrapping their prose in my own illustrative web, but this 
will have little effect on the quality of the papers I receive, A second 
draft is of no great value if it is merely a corrected version of the first. 
Nor if it is a pruned, reshaped or embellished version of the first. A 
good second draft is one that comes from the re-envisioning of the 
first draft from the ground up. 

Certain criteria that are used for revision are fairly standard. The 
revised version should be cleaned up: ft should be clearer and more 
concise than the previous version. It should be free of errors in spell- 
ing, punctuation, grammar and usage. The paper should have a struc- 
ture; it should be organized according to a scheme that the reader can 
divine. The writer should have weighed his words, considered alter- 
natives, made the necessary changes. Finally, the paper should add 
up to something substantial: It should elucidate an idea; it should 
argue or defend; it should teach. 

I wonder, however, whether this is quite enough. There are other 
qualities that I seek when I read, although they ore harder to name. 
These qualities do not fall into the categories of formal correctness or 
rhetorical strength. I am looking, I think, for a fullness, a generosity, 
as if the writer had poured into the words as much as they could 
hold, had filled them; or as if the writer had taken some risk, had 
been willing to come through a barrier of estrangement, extending 
himself toward the reader, leaning on the words, asking that they 
carry more weight than they do in speech. The image I have is one of 
hands slicking out of a wall. It is an image that is tinged with despera- 
tion, the desperation that comes from having something that has to 
be said and from knowing that no one else is quite able to say it. 



The Mind's Eye 7 



Karen Pepper 

And what of the process itself — does it have any intrinsic value 
beyund the quality of the product that it yields? Does the student 
stand to ga in anything besides a more finely constructed piece of work? 
If revision somehow teaches us to think better, might we not use the 
notion of intrinsic gain to motivate both the learning and the teach- 
ing of revision? 

Revision enables the writer to consider his ideas from more than 
one angle. Like a gemstone displayed in a jeweler's shop window, the 
first draft comes into view gradually, presenting each hewn and each 
unhewn facet in turn. The reviser is now the reader, someone who 
sees the work Irom ihe outside yet understands something of its 
internal mechanism, or logic. The reviser is both mirror observer of 
himself as writer, and reader, subjective and objective by turns. The 
question to be asked is, What am 1 trying to convey in this piece of 
writing? — a question necessarily edged with the deeper concerns of 
who I am and what I hold to be true. 

All writing, of course, conveys to the reader something of the 
writer. Too often, however, student papers convey little more than 
the student's awareness that much of this business of education is 
essentially phony, that students write papers much as tigers in the 
circus jump through flaming hoops. The paper is merely an exercise; 
it conveys nothing of real concern. As teachers, we may attribute the 
dullness of the writing to a lack of ideas, though i think this is unfair, 
given the familiar notion that ideas are actually generated by writing: 
On some level, the student may not have written enough (not enough 
depth as often as not enough volume). In any case, what students 
most often lack in their writing is an engagement, both with the sub- 
ject of the paper and with the writing process itself. 

What, then, can I advise my students to aim for as they approach 
the formidable task ol revision? Can an understanding of the myste- 
rious qualities of good writing help students revise their work? 

Heat and Quickness 

In his introduction to Best American Poetry 1999, Robert Bly ex- 
plains that, as editor of that volume, he selected poems that generate 
heat. There are several kinds ol heat in these poems, according to Bly, 



8 The Mmd's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



including heat of the blues, heat ot the furious daughter and heat of 
the meadows and the hawks. 

Heat is a fairly abstract term, but it is helpful for describing what 
mokes some writing especially good. In explaining what he means by 
heat, Bly begins by contrasting it with "computer verbiage [which] 
has become the model of cool and empty language." "The language 
of the chat rooms," Biy claims, "is empty." By "empty" he means free 
of all literary style, free of anything that would pin it to a particular 
generation or place. Heated language, on the other hand, is that which 
has intensity, that which engages layers of meaning, that which has 
pungent phrasings; in short, "that sort of language that springs from 
the fight between God and the donkey." Heat may be associated with 
the decade in which the writer grew up — writing that is "stung by the 
mood of an Oklahoma afternoon in the thirties, or the flavor of an 
Illinois dusk in the forties," or, like the language of Thomas Hardy, 
"imprisoned in the mood of Sussex in 1880" (19-31). 

What Bly is naming "heat" is that which surprises and delights us 
as we read and, simultaneously, evokes a certain recognition. The writ- 
ing is terribly, irresistibly alive, as if Clarissa Dalloway had just walked 
into the room — full skirt, long stride — aird flung open the curtains. It 
is, perhaps, a similar quality that is described by D. H, Lawrence, as 
cited by John Braine in his book Writing a Novel. Lawrence wrote: 

We have to choose between the quick and the dead. The 
quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is dead. In 
this room where I write, there is a little table that is dead: it 
doesn't even weakly exist. And there is a ridiculous little iron 
stove, which for some unknown reason is quick, And there is 
an iron wardrobe trunk, which for some still more mysteri- 
ous reason is quick. And there are several bonks, whose mere 
corpus is dead, utterly dead and non-existent. And there is a 
sleeping cat, very quick. And a glass lamp, alas, is dead. . . . 

And if one tries to find out tvherein the quickness of the 
quick lies, it is in a certain weird relationship between that 
which, is quick and — I don't know, perhaps all the rest of the 
things. It seems to consist in an odd sort of fluid, changing, 
grotesque or beautiful relatedness. That silly iron stove some- 
how belongs. Whereas this thin-shanked table doesn't belong. 
It is a mere disconnected lump, like a cut-off finger. (153-154) 



The Mind's Eye 9 



Karen Pepper 



Bly is speaking primarily of poetry; Lawrence, primarily of fiction. 
But these qualities of heat and quickness also pertain to expository 
writing. In fact, the difficulty of teaching students how to revise their 
papers is, in large part, the difficulty of leaching them how to get such 
qualities into their writing. Perhaps, then, these are useful terms for 
considering the transition from first to second draft; these terms express, 
in other words, what I am trying to teach students to revise toward. 

Often, what students do when they revise their papers is simpfy 
to deaden them. Here, let us imagine, is a first draft, which has just 
the faintest suggestion of life. To be sure, the organizing principle is 
pure randomness; the grammar, weak; the "its" and "it's" invariably 
interchanged. And now, here is the revision. "Its" and "it's" have, 
miraculously, found their proper places. Commas have been inserted 
with some regard to phrasing. Sentences have been reworked, and 
the introduction has been rewritten. In fact, there is nothing actually 
wrong. Only, the paper is unbearable to read. It begins, predictably, 
"In our society today" and ends, "In conclusion, capital punishment 
should be abolished." Such writing, as I understand, is what Bly would 
describe as empty, what D. H. Lawrence would describe as dead. The 
writing is generic. There is nothing of a particular voice, a particular 
person. There is no engagement of the writer with Ms subject, no 
wrestling, no wresting from the words that density of meaning that 
words must yield if we struggle with them enough. 

Yet.each of my students has something of importance to say. Each 
one has something urgent that commands his attention arid cries out 
for articulation. But uncovering this thing-that-needs-to-be-said is a 
matter of some delicacy. On the one hand, it is a process of self- 
discovery; as such, it requires permission and encouragement. On 
the other hand, it is a process of honing language so that meaning 
becomes increasingly clear; as such, it requires the imposition of 
restraints. Further, the permission and the restraint should work in 
synchrony, like two pistons in the same engine, to supply the student 
both with sufficient energy to see the assignment through and with 
language fine enough to express his thought. 

And this is not all. The thing-that-needs-to-be-said is not just some 
creative utge or impulse toward self-expression. It has a subject that 
is not the writer's self. In fact, this thing-that-needs-to-be-said Is, 
and must remain, attached to the assignment. It is the truth about 

10 The Mind's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



capital punishment as only one person knows it. The student's 
immediate task is to find some point of attachment between his desire 
for self-expression and an "external* subject, one that at least initially 
lies beyond the limits of his experience, if he is to cross the river that 
separates him from a body of knowledge that is not yet his own, he 
must first find the narrowest part of it — a conviction or, at least, an 
intuition — then construct a bridge across. That bridge will be made of 
language, though the student, needs to possess it and to trust it before 
he can cross. 

Nothing is worth writing unless it carries the writer's conviction. 
I find that students have not been barred from expressing their con- 
victions; rather, they have been barred from discovering them. They 
have learned to situate their convictions on a map of cliches, to pin 
what they think they believe to what is already out there, to existing 
ideas. Thus, what they find is preconceived: Not only do they avoid 
working at the process of discovery, which is the real work of revi- 
sion, but they are bored at the outset. Perhaps too much has been 
given them— the directions may be overly explicit (narrow down the 
topic, write an outline, etc.). Perhaps they have no hope that writing 
papers or duing academic research will enable them to take in some 
part of the world and enlarge themselves in the process. The map 
they are guided by may lead them away from, rather than toward, 
their real subject — the thing they care about. Students do have opin- 
ions on capital punishment, abortion, gun control. What they do not 
have is the possibility of driving off the map, into the woods, and 
finding out what it is within these large areas that really has meaning 
for them. 

I am not advocating that expository writing courses be turned into 
creative writing courses. The real task that students have is to write 
with heat, even when the subject is capital punishment and it is not 
one's own head that is going to be cut off: They must somehow learn to 
maintain a certain intensity in the writing, even as the subject moves 
away from that very central and very dear point of focus — moi. 

Hot Spots 

As teachers, we can help students dig out from the first draft what 
is potentially there, what is only slightly hinted at or even what the 



The Mind's Eye 11 



Karen Pepper 

writing may conceal. We can help students strip away the excess layers 
of casual, disengaged writing, the writing that carries no conviction, 
that we read and feel indifferent to — that even the author feels 
indifferent to. Such writing is of no use to anyone. "Do you really 
believe this?" and "Do you really care about this?" are questions we 
might usefully ask. 

In practical terms, how might students be helped in getting some 
heat, or at least some real conviction, into their papers? First, they 
would do well to learn to identify what is most worth keeping — or 
pursuing — in a first draft. Peter Elbow has suggested a process he calls 
"cooking," or "getting material to interact" (73). He writes: 

But a person's best writing is often all mixed up together with 
his worst. It all feels lousy to him as he's writing, but if he will 
let himself write it and come back later he will find some 
parts of it are excellent. It is as though one's best words come 
wrapped in one's worst, (69) 

But the step between first and second draft is not taken simply by 
crossing out those worst words. The selection process that Elbow 
recommends involves additional writing, thinking and letting oneself be 
struck by what emerges in the writing. Elbow suggests that writers need 
to locate a "center of gravity," a part of the writing often not truly visible 
in a first draft that is found by relaxing control, digressing, exaggerating 
and letting the writing run in several directions seemingly at once. 

In recognition of the aptness of Bly's terminology, I use the term 
"hot spot" rather than "center of gravity" to indicate what the writer is 
trying to find in, or through, a rough draft. By "hot spot" I mean a hint 
or indication of what is worth carrying forward into the next draft. 

Identifying a hot spot involves choosing a bit of the draft at hand— 
a sentence, a phrase, even a word — as a focal point. The rest becomes 
momentarily blurry. The choice is not between what is correctly writ- 
ten and what is mechanically flawed. The choice is between what is 
urgent and true and what isn't. For the moment, all that is required is 
honesty on the part of the writer. 

The work of discovering the hot spot may best be left to the au- 
thor of the paper. Thus, in teaching revision, 1 have found it useful to 
have students learn to pick out the hot spots in their own first drafts. 
When we, as teachers, praise particular parts of the writing, when we 



12 The Mind's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



are the ones to find the points of strength or intensity, we may be 
advancing the process, but we are doing little to teach the student to 
discern what he most truly has to say. Our enthusiasm may actually 
do more harm than good, as it may blur the line between "hot" (ur- 
gent, essential, necessary) and "not-hot." If, on the other hand, the 
student can identify in a first draft what is essential to retain (or the 
next draft, he is well on his way to producing a piece of writing that is 
more deeply his own, one that matters more to him. Approaching the 
writing of the second draft this way, instead of merely tinkering with 
the first draft, may expand the task of revision but will also enliven it. 
Therefore, the other aspects of revision — organizing and polishing — 
are more likely to be undertaken with a greater degree of care. 

In the classroom, hot spots can be identified in a number of ways: 

1. I have collected the papers and then asked students to write 
the papers anew in their tiotebooks; 

2. I have collected the papers, taught the class and then, at the 
end of the period, asked students to write what they remember of 
their papers; 

3. I have asked students to imagine that the building is burning 
down and they have only enough time to save a single sentence of 
their papers — which one would they keep? 

The first draft is not, with these methods, actually read during 
revision; it is put aside. It is forgotten or, more accurately, partially 
forgotten. The usefulness of forgetting as an approach to revision has 
been noted by the poet and essayist Donald Hall: 

Most of my poems spend time in a dark drawer. One thing I've 
learned: If a poem is ... if you think that a poem is going 
wrong, if you lecl something lundamentally awry in it, you 
cannot cure it by changing the punctuation! You cannot bully 
it into excellence by staring at it every morning! You have to 
give it time to change itself deeply, which is accomplished only 
by not-looking at it. When a poem is in a drawer, that drawer 
is a kind of metaphor. Yon are putting the poem back into the 
sleep-place, so that dream and daydream can work it over. You 
are "forgetting" it, putting it in the oubliette. When I have suc- 
cessfully forgotten a poem, I may wake out of sound sleep with 
a clear notion of a change for it; I may discover lines for it, 
popping into my head, while I drive to the butcher's. (36) 



The Mind's Eye 13 



Karen Pepper 



The sort of "forced forgetting" that comes with the identification of a 
hot spot works like a filter: What is essential in the first draft flows 
through into the second draft, whereas whatever is not essential is 
held back. The second draft does not, at this stage, replace the first; 
rather, both are acknowledged as possibilities, to be evaluated and 
compared at a later stage. 

Furthermore, the student does not have to deal with that most 
intractable problem all writers face — the difficulty of tossing page after 
page of one's own work into the trash bin. Here, the decision of what 
to keep and what to toss isn't made by the writer, at least not 
consciously; rather, it is built into the system. What is dead fur D. H. 
Lawrence is that which does not belong; in other words, that which 
we can do without. Like memory, these techniques enable the student 
to retain only what is essential, which he might not be able to identify 
by a more intentional process of selection. Like memory, their virtue 
lies in their ability to cut. through excess, redundancy and sheer weak 
prose. 

As it becomes apparent that one can simply let go of parts of the 
first draft, the student is not only freed from a sheer excess of mate- 
rial, he is also freed from his attachment to particular sentences. It 
becomes clear that what he has to say can be expressed in several 
ways — and that some ways may be better than others, Thus, he be- 
gins to produce several versions of one part of the paper. The point, 
however, is not to work through the rest of the first draft and rewrite 
it in different sentences. The point is to leave the rest aside (it may or 
may not figure in the final draft), allowing the hot spot to emerge as 
the generative source of the second draft. 

Another strategy for identifying hot spots is to pay extremely care- 
I t.i 1 attention to the language of the first draft: If is often where lan- 
guage shifts slightly that the writer is trying to say something more 
than what actually got onto the page. I have asked students to run 
their fingers along the print and to stop at the place where it gets hot, 
where their fingers start to burn. In this case, of course, I have ex- 
plained just how they will know when they hit a hot spot. I might 
give them Bly's essay to read, or suggest ways in which they might be 
extremely attentive to their words. I might ask them to look for that 
phrase or sentence that seems to shimmer, that is somehow distinct 
from the rest of the paper. A hot spot often appears in the guise of a 

14 The Mind's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



reversed sentence structure, another peculiarity in syntax, an odd 
word, particularly a word that seems too "charged," too emotion- 
laden for the context. A string ot verbs may signify a hot spot, as may 
a metaphor. 

Another indication of a hot spot is the idea that falls off a cliff: An 
idea is just barely suggested and then, too quickly, dropped. Such 
cliffhangers often come in the final paragraph of the first draft. It is 
the idea the student has arrived at through the arduous work of fill- 
ing with print the assigned number of pages. "Whew! Now I can say 
it, knowing that my paper is finished and I don't have to write any 
more." The idea is held out to the reader in a most tantalizing and 
most frustrating manner. It is often the first good idea in the paper. 
The second draft needs to start with this, to make it central. 

In approaching the second draft as something that grows out of 
the hot spot, the student shifts his focus away from what initially 
appeared to be his main concern but ready wasn't. The first draft may 
have been weak because it radiated from a false center. The response 
is to help the student resituate that center, The one good idea in the 
first draft, or at least the indication of an idea, or, failing that, some 
linguistic formulation to which the student is committed, now be- 
comes the focus of the second draft. The rest of the second draft will 
provide the context or setting for that idea . La wrence's notion of quick- 
ness, turned around, becomes the problem of finding the particular 
setting that brings an object to life; it is the relationship of the object 
to the rest of the room that gives us the sense of the object's "quick- 
ness" — and so it is with the central idea of the paper. It is the context 
constructed around it that will serve to sustain the vibrancy of the 
central idea, The second draft, then, is built up like a series of concen- 
tric rings around the hot spot. 

Finding hot spots is a method for generating a second draft that 
goes deeper than the first. Hot spots, like thermal springs, may be 
indicative of the sort of bedrock that lies beneath, the belief or the 
assumption that needs to be explored, whose exploration is, in fact, 
what the paper ought to address. With this method, revision pro- 
ceeds from what is potentially strongest in the draft at hand and what 
is, thereby, most likely to give rise to a stronger, more accurately fo- 
cused second draft. 



The Mind's Eye 15 



Karen Pepper 



From a Fountain, Flowing 

The second draft generated by the methods outlined above is not, 
however, a final draft. In fact, it is likely to be less well organized than 
the first draft and may even be bursting apart at the seams. In a sense, 
the organizational scheme has shifted from a linear one (such as would 
be achieved with a conventional outline) to something like a foun- 
tain, a central source or spring giving out concentric waves. The next 
step in the process, of course, is to look more carefully at the overall 
cohesion and to restore a logical, linear progression to the work. 

The problem of overall cohesion, however, is not in practice sepa- 
rable from examining the validity of the ideas expressed. That is, where 
something is to be placed in the paper depends largely on its relation- 
ship to the rest, rather than on any absolute truth. The questions of 
whether the ideas are valid and where they best fit, in turn, are not 
easily separated from whether their rendition is sufficiently precise 
for the writer's purpose. Refining ideas through experimentation with 
language — comparing alternative formulations — is how the writer 
makes sense of them, how he decides whether his words convey to 
the reader what he thinks they do, whether the reader takes from his 
sentences what he thinks he has put in. Often the idea does belong, 
but not in the way it has so far been expressed. The comparison of 
alternative formulations is not as easy as it may seem. No word is 
better than another in any absolute sense; every choice the writer 
makes depends on context and on purpose. Choosing among alterna- 
tive formulations requires a sensitivity to each of the variable ele- 
ments of the sentence (diction, syntax, sentence structure, etc.). a 
sensitivity that embraces both the aural and the logical. 

If a student is to consider two versions of a text or even two ver- 
sions of a sentence, he must have some criteria by which to evaluate 
which version is better for his purpose. The problem is how the same 
thought might be said differently and how it might be said better; 
how, that is, he might say what he means more exactly. In order to 
work at this level, students need to have at their command a range of 
possibilities. Sometimes the student cannot evaluate his idea because 
its articulation is too lax and unspecific; it is almost as if the idea is not 
"large" enough — the student can't really step inside it and examine it 



16 The Mind's Eye 



Karen Pepper 



from the inside. The sentence that best fits the student's intention 
may be a sentence he cannot yet formulate, or even recognize if it is 
formutated for him. The difficulty of choosing one version over an- 
other is often exacerbated by the unfamlliarity with more elaborate 
language. The language that he needs may not yet be the student's 
own; it is not his usual mode of expression. 

Helping students revise their papers (particularly the revision that 
transforms the second draft into the third draft) hinges on being able 
to provide them with a larger range of choices, but not so large a 
range that they feel they are out of their depth— a difficult job, in- 
deed. Of course, these choices cannot be served up to students but 
must be elicited from them. A larger vocabulary, a greater variety of 
sentence structures and a more extensive knowledge of how syntax 
can be varied to achieve certain effects would all be beneficial to my 
students. In fact, the dullness of many of the papers f read can be 
attributed to a lack of variation of sentence structure. The kinds of 
sentences that the student has available may be so limited that it is as 
if a ceiling has been placed low in the room of his thought. 

There is nothing wrong, of course, with offering examples. I could 
write on the board a series of sentences that go from cold to hot, in 
Bly's terms, or from dead to quick, in Lawrence's. But encouraging 
students to incorporate heightened language for the sake of doing so 
is not equivalent to teaching them to write. In another sense, though, 
one does learn by example: It is certainly possible to learn a lot about 
how to write by absorbing examples of great prose. In fact, this may 
be the only way that certain aspects of writing— syntax, cadence- 
can be learned. But years of exposure are necessary. For most of my 
students, those years have simply been lost. Lost tn television, lost to 
the Internet or lost to the lousy prose that apparently constitutes so 
much of what kids read in high school. Good examples do teach, but 
only over a period of what I would call geologic time, the slow time it 
takes for rainwater to replenish an aquifer, deep underground. In 
that time frame, the examples will eventually filter down. But that 
time is vast: No visible improvement is likely to occur this semester or 
even this year. 

As a teacher, of course, I can assign reading that is more sophisti- 
cated than what my students are accustomed to; by doing so, I hope 
to improve their ability to match what they are trying to say to what 



The Mind's Eye 17 



Karen Pepper 

they type into their computers. I mention the problem of reading in a 
large sense here, in closing, because I think that my students' difficul- 
ties with writing largely stem from a lack of sustained reading of com- 
plex maTerial. It is not clear to me how their writing can be more 
sophisticated than the reading they have done so far. Thus, as teach- 
ers and writing tutors, we would do well to acknowledge that we are 
dealing with problems that can be only partially addressed in the 
classroom or the tutoring session, and I hope that my remarks about 
finding hot spots will be of some use in that situation. The greater 
problem of diminished literacy must be addressed at other levels. 



Works Cited 

Bly, Robert, ed. The Best American Poetry 1999. Series ed. David Lehman. 
New York: Scribner, 1999. 

Braine, John. Writing a Novel. London: Methuen, 1985. 

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers . Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, 

Hall, Donald. Poetry and Ambition. Essays 1982-8S. Ann Arbor: U ol 
Michigan P. 2000. 

Murray, Donald. The Craft of Revision. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1995. 



18 The Mind's Eye 



Manuel Puig, Pedro 
Almodovar and the 
Politics of Camp 

BY GRAZIANA RAMSDEN 



In an Argentine prison, a.d. 1974, Luis Alberto Molina sings pas- 
sionate boleros to his cellmate and lover, political prisoner Valentin, 
shortly before being released and dying by the hand of Valentin's 
companeros. 

[n Madrid, a.d. 1 986, Antonio plays a heart-wrenching bolero to 
his lover Pablo shortly before committing suicide to avoid being ar- 
rested for murdering Pablo's ex-lover Juan. 

These brief plot summaries are fragments respectively from the 
works of Argentine novelist Manuel Puig and of Spanish filmmaker 
Pedro Almodovar. The first achieved fame in the U.S. for the novel 
turned film and Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman; the sec- 
ond for controversial films such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Kika, 
which scandalized U.S. audiences in the late eighties with their por- 
trayal of violent, albeit ironically so, relationships. 

Manuel Puig was among the first Latin American writers to create 
innovative, experimental literature out of the materials of mass culture. 
In so doing, he has reversed the traditional hierarchy of "high" and 
"low" culture, and the creative role of such diverse elements as popular 
music (particularly the tango and the bolero), B movies and the classic 
formulas of film and literary melodrama, from serial romance and 
the detective story to the radio soaps and classic Hollywood films. 



The Mind's Eye 19 



Graiiana Ramsclen 



Pedro Almodovar is the artist whose work most resembles Puig's 
in terms of a redemptive reevaluatiort of a shared mass and popular 
culture* both regional and global, and its impact on the formation of 
a global culture that transcends national boundaries. 

Here I contextualize Puig's and Almodovar's treatment of popu- 
lar culture forms within the aesthetics of camp, which I define not 
only as an aesthetic sensibility that exalts artifice and excess (Sontag 
107) but also as an "operation of taste" (Ross 136) that retrieves the 
discarded "low" cultural products, resurrects and reconceptualizes 
them. In addition to that, and contrary to an early understanding of 
camp as apolitical, when defined as "queer parody" (Meyer 1), camp 
is an oppositional discourse that exposes the inconsistencies of gen- 
der categories and roles, and critiques as well as transgresses the bound- 
aries of sexual representation. 

From the start, Puig's and Almodovar's creations are situated here 
within the framework of postmodernism to provide a cultural as well 
as historical milieu. 

While postmodernism has manifested itself in various disciplines 
such as art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communi- 
cations, fashion and technology, it eludes a temporal categorization, 
since opinions differ on its exact inception, except for the obvious 
chronological indication that it follows modernism. If only for didactic 
purposes, postmodernism has been characterized in contrast to 
modernism to signify a continuity with as well as a break with the 
modernist aesthetics and practices (Habermas; Huyssen; Hutcheon; 
Herman). Modernism sought to disrupt the conventions of 19th- 
century art, the most relevant here being the representational mode 
of realism. In addition to that, the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis 
opened a new realm of investigation for artists, providing additional 
insight into the dynamics of the mind. Consequently, from a literary 
perspective, modernism highlights subjectivity in writing by stressing 
the importance of individual perception and advocating a movement 
away from objectivity in narration. As a result of that, modernism 
promotes experimentation, as stream-of- consciousness writing and 
the abandonment of an objective omniscient narrative point of view, 
both of which predominate in the fragmented and discontinuous 
modernist novel. The bourgeois society spawned by the industrial- 
ization of the second half of the 19th ceniury is the target of the 

20 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramsilen 



modernist critique not only for its inherent materialist qualities but 
also because of the modernist hostility toward progress and technology. 
Postmodernism continues modernist experimentation by rejecting 
rigid genre conventions as well as by portraying decentered 
subjectivities; but in contrast to the profound modernist pessimism, 
postmodernism seems to celebrate the alienation of the subject and 
the incoherence of history. 

In Latin America, an important literary phenomenon coincides 
with and mirrors the aesthetic and literary tenets of modernism: the 
so-called boom of the Latin American new novel, which features works 
of such writers as Carlos Puentes, Gabriel Garcia Marque/, Mario 
Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, fol- 
lowing John Barth, situates the boom alongside modern literature: 
"What Barth and his predecessors call modern literature corresponds 
to the Boom, especially Hopscotch by Corta/ar . . . The Death of Artemio 
Cruz, Infante's Inferno (247). Echevarria finds the discriminating as- 
pect between the boom novel and the so-called posboom in the influence 
of high modernists Joyce and Faulkner, evident in the use of experi- 
mental literary techniques, such as stream of consciousness and frag- 
mented narration, as opposed to postmodern narrative, which features 
the return to a reader-friendly narration. Jose Donoso, himself a boom 
front liner, divides the boom into two phases: a first generation, which 
includes the novelists also mentioned by Echevarria, and a second gen- 
eration, "a pop answer" ( 124) to the first generation, which comprises, 
among others, Puig. Severo Sarduy and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 
Donoso lists as characteristics of the "pop" boom: 

the contamination with foreign languages and literatures, the 
contact with other forms and arts, such as film, painting, or 
poetry, the inclusion of various dialects and lingos and man- 
nerisms of specialized groups, the acceptance of the require- 
ments of the fantastic, the subjective, the marginalized. (28) 

The works of Puig, typified by his incorporation of the discourses 
of "pop" matcriafs, such as Hollywood film, popular music, romance 
and mystery novels; by his crafting of unique character voices, as 
exemplified by Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968); and by his attention 
to sexuality, are representative of the aesthetics of the posboom, along- 
side the work of, for example, Gustavo Sain?; and Elena Poniatowska 

The Mind's Eye 21 



Graziana Ramsden 



from Mexico, Luisa Valenzuela and Ricardo Piglia from Argentina, 
Ariel Dorfman and Antonio Skarmeta from Chile, Cristina Peri Rossi 
from Uruguay and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reynaldo Arenas 
from Cuba. The transition from boom to posboom is really quite fluid 
since writers such as Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter [1977]) 
andCortazar (We Love Glenda So Much [1980]) toyed with pop culture 
materials such as the radio soap opera and Hollywood cinema. Yet 
critics have pointed out tensions between boom and posboom in the 
former's extreme emphasis on technique and language as well as a 
universalizing though elitist attitude of the former in contrast to "the 
conscious return to referentiality, to emotion and the love-ideal, to 
social commitment, ideology and protest" (Shaw 12), in addition to 
the latter's incorporation of the pop culture discourse as an implicit, 
criticism of the previous generation. Furthermore, the posboom as well 
as postmodern art in general, places a strong emphasis on sexuality 
and the body, resulting in a privileged voicing of the desire of " women, 
homosexuals, lesbians, drug addicts, transsexuals, transvestites" (Varderi 33). 

If the posboom is an early indication of postmodernism in Latin 
America, postmodern practice is fully recognizable in Spain in the 
cultural phenomenon of la movida, which took place after the death 
of Francisco Franco ( 1 976) . In the attempt to break with 40 years of 
military regime, which had imposed strict censorship, the youth of 
Spain supported the political struggles of the seventies such as women's 
and gay rights, and imitated pop culture tendencies of Great Britain 
and the U.S. such as punk, glam rock, the hippie movement and the 
drug culture (Vernon and Morris 5). Since the image of the new Spain 
did not match the one that had been "sold" to the summer tourists by 
the Franco regime in the fifties and sixties, the movida satirized the 
iconography of the bullfight, of the flamenco and the cancion espanola. 
The art of the movida was iconoclastic and often imitated pop culture 
materials such as the comic strip, as in the graphic art. of Ceesepe and 
Javier Mariscal. as well .is the trashy, "underground" aesthetics of 
pornography and of punk, epitomb.ed by rock groups Alaska y los 
Pegamoides and Kaka de Luxe. Almodovar's first films situate them- 
selves within the movida; and what is more, his first two feature films, 
Pepi, Luci, Bom and the Girls of the Heap and Labyrinth of Passions, are to 
be considered documentary of the movida, not only because they re- 
flect its innovative, distorting and gender-bending spirit but also for 

22 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramsden 



their rough, improvisational quality of sound and cinematic narra- 
tion (Vernon and Morris 7). 

A common ground between Puig and AJmodovar as postmodern 
artists as well as prominent figures of their cultural period of activity 
is the rejection of the canonic modernist and premodernist distinc- 
tion between "high" and "low" culture in favor of a wider selection nf 
materials used to produce art. Postmodern narrative, for example, 
thrives on the reelaboration or "transcontextualization" of recogniz- 
able "low" or popular culture elements, thus drawing attention to 
itself as an artifact evolved from and influenced by other artifacts, 
This mechanism of "transcontextualization," also known as parody 
or "imitation with critical distance" (Hutcheon, Parody 2), repeats the 
conventions of cultural materials, both "high" and "low," yet invests 
them with a subversive meaning that works as a critique of as well as 
a tribute to the parodied text. When borrowing those conventions, 
parody takes on not only an aesthetic valence but also, and most 
importantly, an ideological and critical implication. Linda Hutcheon's 
definition of parody diverges from the traditional understanding of 
parody as a parasitic form intended to ridicule a text. Some critics of 
postmodernism, notably Fredric Jameson, arguing that postmodern 
art passively reproduces past forms, lean on a "negative" concept of 
parody as a mocking tool, and identify parody as pastiche: "Pastiche 
is blank parody . . . the imitation of a peculiar or unique style . . . 
without the satirical impulse" (16). whereas Jameson's pastiche is a 
form of nostalgia, an ahistorical. acritical form of citation, Hutcheon's 
parody, "a double process of installing and ironizing" (Politics 93), fore- 
grounds not only the continuity with past forms but also the ideo- 
logical implications resulting from ironic reinterpretations of the past. 

In this regard, it can be argued that both Puig and Almodovar 
cultivate a parodic model in their works, especially in their ironic 
treatment of melodrama and of the melodramatic mode, whose 
conventions, again, they borrow and repeat with critical as well as 
elevating intentions. As for Puig, his novel Heartbreak Tango was de- 
fined as parody by Severo Sarduy in his article "Notes to the Notes to 
the Notes," itself highly parodic, mixing textual analysis with long 
quotations of romance novels by Corfu Tcllado and fragments 
protagonized by his own character Cobra from his homonymous 1972 
novel. The Cuban writer argues that in Puig's second novel: 



The Mind 's Eye 23 



Graziana Ramsden 



The genre turns upon itself, places its object at a distance, and 
circumscribes it, escaping its image and pointing at it, reveal- 
ing without abandoning It, but undermining with a tender 
smile the density of its conventions and the network of its 
grammar. (625) 

Sarduy derives his concept of parody, via Julia Kristeva, from 
Mikhail Bakhtin, and paraphrases his notion of parody as a form that 
"both glorifies and mocks its 'paragram'" (626), which in Boquitas 
pintadas is the serial novel oifolletm. In a 1972 interview and later in 
1983 (Corbatta 597), Puig rejected the "parodic" definition of his nov- 
els, assuming that that qualification would diminish his characters: "I 
looked up various dictionaries and they all said the same: «parody, 
mocking imitation». I assure you that my intention is never to mock 
my characters" (Rodriguez Monegal, Folktin 29). Yet in the postmodern 
sense, parody as imitation with distance, as proposed by Sarduy and 
Hutchcon, can be perceived as a dominant characteristic throughout 
Puig's novels, in their free mixing of pupular culture elements such 
as film and popular music, and composite texture that attracts atten- 
tion to itself as a creation that recycles and recontextualizes those 
very elements. 

Similarly, Almodovar's films have been defined as parodic for their 
^interpretation, both aesthetic and critical of the cultural traditions 
of Spain (Yarza 35-37). More recently, Mark Allinson has advanced 
the theory that parody is Almodovar's "general mode of address," a 
questioning tool to mediate "national identity, power and gender 
relations, sexuality, history, politics, cultural traditions, visual and mu- 
sical choices" (213). In a 1987 interview, in reference to his unique 
tone and blend of genres and discourses. Almodovar admitted: "In 
my films, everyth i n g is j usr at the border of parody. It's not only parody. 
It's also the borderline of the ridiculous and the grotesque" (Kinder 
37). The crossing of borderlines is characteristic also of Almodovar cin- 
ematography, one that often represents the atrezzo, or the cinematic 
apparatus of filming, alongside dubbing and editing as a self-conscious 
reminder of the artificial nature of film as representation. 

The mass culture entertainment products parodied by postmodern 
art can be referred to as kitsch, a nomenclature that gathers the arti- 
ficial as well as the sensationalist object under the category of bad 



24 The Mind s Eye 



(Iraziana Ramsden 



taste. Malei Calinescu specifies that kitsch is an incongruous product 
of modernity, one that opposes the innovative, progressive spirit of 
the modern era by emphasizing an unrefined, naif, candid imitation 
of art: "Modernity and kitsch — the notions might seem mutually ex- 
clusive . . . modernity implies antitraditional presentness . . . while 
kitsch . . . suggests repetition, banality, triteness" (225-226). Gillo 
Dorfles adds to the unoriginal nature of kitsch a sentimental quality 
that transforms an artistic phenomenon into a banal, unnatural 
object; For Dorfles, the essence of kitsch is "the falsification of senti- 
ments and the substitution of spurious sentiments for real ones" (221). 
In Spain, Ramon Gomez de la Serna translates kitsch into "la cursi," a 
mixture of exaggeration and decadence in objects, 

A more rigorous critique of kitsch is elaborated by Celeste 
Olalquiaga, who in Megalopolis describes three "degrees" of kitsch "ac- 
cording to their means of production and cultural function" (42). The 
first degree is "what is usually referred to in discussions of kitsch" 
(43), based on an innocent, indexical relationship between reality 
and representation. The second degree of kitsch or "neo-kitsch" (45) 
profits from an "acquired taste for tackiness. It is a popularization of 
the camp sensibility, a perspective wherein appreciation of the "ugly" 
conveys an . . . ironic enjoyment from a position of enlightened supe- 
riority" (45). Finally, the third degree of kitsch is made legitimate by 
being "recycled" into a work of art (47) . Olalquiaga's third degree of 
kitsch, which she exemplifies in the contemporary Chicana and 
Nuyorican reinterpretation of the home altar, closely resembles the 
postmodern process of parody: Both transcontextualize and redeem 
the kitsch object from "trash" into part of an artwork without losing 
sight of the nature of kitsch; both conduct an implicit critique of the 
kitsch object as well as its means of production. 

The presence of bad taste, kitsch or cursi materials is endemic in 
Puig's novels: in a 1981 interview, when questioned on the reasoning 
behind his predilection for kitsch, he stated: 

I was always interested in popular genres. ... I have been 
able to discover certain elements in these minor genres . . . 
the intrigue, the care to maintain the reader's attention, the 
narrative agility and the use of sentiment ... the sentimental 
stuff is part of human experience. (Almada Roche 42) 



The Mind's Eye 25 



Graziana Ramsdtn 

In a recent study, Alberto Giordano explains the kitsch and ami 
references in Pu ig's novels as "a manifestation of the lack of authentic- 
ity, the imposture and the conservatism that characterize the 
morals of the petit bourgeois society" (89). Giordano invokes 
Calineseu's definition of kitsch as "the expression of the lifestyle of 
the middle classes" (258), whose study is privileged in Puig's early 
novels. Following Olalquiaga, we can establish Puig's and Almodovar's 
kitsch as "third-degree" kitsch, which parody legitimizes into a work 
of art. Clear examples of kitsch in Puig's novels can be found in Esther's 
diary in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which mimics the excessive melo- 
dramatic tone of the prose of the Peron era (MacAdam 58-59); in the 
radio soap "The Wounded Captain" in Heartbreak Tango, which 
excites Mabel and Nene with its suspenseful action and whispered 
dialogues; in the emphatic recitation of poetry of Clara Evelia in The 
Buenos Aires Affair, and the poetry recital she organizes, which em- 
bodies the spectacular and artificial qualities of kitsch; in Molina's 
film narrations in Kiss of the Spider Woman, especially Destiny, the in- 
vented Nazi film, and in Ana's dreams in Pubis Angelical, for their 
sentimental and outlandish nature. Puig parodies kitsch without 
condemning it ("I don't condemn kitsch" [Rodriguez Monegal 29]), 
and kitsch is elevated to the status of art within the "serious" genre 
of the novel. 

Almodovar, like Puig, has expressed a predilection for kitsch ma- 
terials: In an interview released at the time of The Flower of My Secret 
(1995), he made a strikingly similar statement to the one by Puig I 
reported earlier: 

I have always been interested in subgenres ... of literature, of 
film, of video, of soap operas, of music, etc., because there is a 
large freedom and a lot of humor in them. (Marguindey 5) 

Almodovar's kitsch feeds on the Catholic iconography, particu- 
larly prominent in films such as Dark Habits, Law of Desire and Tie Me 
Up! Tie Me Down!. Here kitsch is subject to a mechanism of ironic 
reappropriation and parodic reinterpretation of a specifically Spanish 
imagery into third-degree kitsch, a mechanism that Alejandro Yarza 
finds inescapably political, as it liberates and reappropriates the kitsch 
objects from the fascist ideology of the Franco regime (17). In Dark 
Habits, for example, the convent of the Humbled Redeemers is popu- 

26 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramsden 



latedby either junkie (Sister Manure) or sex-crazed (Sister Rat) nuns, 
which satirically points to the disjunction, long repressed by the Catho- 
lic Church, between religious belief and worldly desires. In Law of 
Desire, Tina builds a cruz de mayo, a kitsch altar to the Virgin Mary 
populated by pictures and figurines of Marilyn Monroe and Barbie 
dolls. In Atame, the Sagrndo corazon, a popular picture of Jesus and 
Mary, resembles Andy Warhol's serial portrait of Marilyn Monroe in 
its sequential repetition. Gonzalo Navajas justifies Almodovar's reli- 
gious kitsch as an aesthetic minimization, which "is most eficientes en 
el mode* estetico de Almoddvary dene una function utii en el modelo cultural 
espahol, que tradicionalmente ha conferido demasiada importancia a cierlas 
categorias ideologicas, cuya defensa se ha priorizado " (Navajas 71). 

While describing the second degree of kitsch, Olalquiaga makes 
reference to the camp sensibility described by Susan Sontag in her 
pioneer article "Notes on Camp": Olalquiaga's emphasis is on camp's 
ironic reevaluation of the kitsch object, as opposed to the innocent, 
ersatz quality of first -degree kitsch. Sontag's article defined camp as a 
sensibility or "a certain mode of aestheticism . . , one way of seeing 
the world as an aesthetic phenomenon in terms of artifice and styl- 
ization" (106). Her emphasis is on the frivolous aspects of camp, on 
iis privileging of style at the expense of content, which determines an 
unconditional acceptance of kitsch: "Camp does not reverse things. 
It doesn't argue that, the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does 
is offer for art (and life) a different — and supplementary — set of stan- 
dards" ( 1 14). This statement proves true when considering Puig's and 
Almodovar's camp preference for kitsch materials, which is charac- 
terized by an ironic position that accentuates the artifice inherent in 
the kitsch object. In addition to that, as Paul Julian Smith notes, the 
frivolous undertone of their work is perhaps connected to the fact 
that they often place feminine (or female-identified) characters in a 
prominent narrative place, which has led critics to dismiss especially 
Almodovar's body of work as "kitsch" for the widespread disrepute of 
the register of popular culture, generally coded as "feminine" (2). 
This argument can be reversed in terms of a reevaluation or reaffir- 
mation of kitsch, which, to a certain extent, can be established 
specifically in its association with the feminine (Modleski 24). 

Since it favors the "looks" of things, Sontag qualifies camp as "apoliti- 
cal" < 107), yet the camp perspective of the artists under consideration 



The Mind's Eye 21 



Graziana Kamsden 



here results intrinsically subversive, in that the sentimental and arti- 
ficial qualities of kiisch are turned against themselves in the dynam- 
ics of parody. An important point in Sontag's essay is that the practice 
of camp is not restricted to homosexuals, although the author recog- 
nizes the presence of "a peculiar affinity' (117) between camp and ho- 
mosexuality, since homosexuals are the "creators ol sensibilities" (f 18), 

Andrew Ross's essay "Uses of Camp" also establishes a relation- 
ship between camp and kitsch, where the latter, "the detritus of fash- 
ion . . . history's waste" (f51). is salvaged and rediscovered by the 
"collector mode" of camp: Camp constitutes "an operation of taste" 
(i36) thai retrieves and "revamps" the "low" culture objects. In a 
camp frame of mind, Puig compared his concept of an, as informed 
by "low" culture materials, to his character Gladys's sculptures in The 
Buenos Aires Affair, which are made with the debris left behind by the 
tide: "I entirely share Gladys's concept of art" (Corbatta 59). Ross's 
definition of camp diverges from Sonlag's view when he establishes a 
political agenda lor the exercise of camp, since the objective of its 
salvaging operation is to expose the inadequacy not only of standards 
of taste but also of a system of vahres that excludes the homosexual 
from the social and cultural practices of the dominant ideology. The 
exercise of camp contains "an explicit commentary on feats of sur- 
vival in a world dominated by the taste, interests, and definitions of 
others" (144). This tactic becomes feasible for gay rights advocate Jack 
Babuscio when accompanied by irony and humor, two of the four 
basic features ol camp (the other two being theatricality and aestheti- 
cism) . Irony, "the subject matter of camp" (20), relies on a perceived 
incongruity between an object and its context; humor, "the strategy 
of camp" (27), is a way to deal with that incongruity by means of 
laughter. Though conveying a comic perception of the world, Babuscio 
also argues that the quick wit of camp is an indirect expression of 
anger or an attempt to confront the rage that originates in the op- 
pression and the exclusion of the homosexuals: "Camp can be ... a 
means of illustrating those cultural ambiguities and contradictions 
that oppress us all" (28). 

Forms of camp humor are found in Puig's and Almodovar's work 
in varying degrees: The latter's has evolved from a cra/y, black humor 
that bordered on the scatological, in episodes such as the peeing scene 
of Pepi, Luci. Bom . . . and the portera with diarrhea in Labyrinth of 

28 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramscien 



Passions, into a more refined, less scatological humor as exemplified 
by the feuding mother and daughter in The Flower of My Secret and in 
the life story of La Agrado in All About My Mother. Almodovar's camp 
humor has often been misunderstood and harshly criticized in in- 
stances such as the imprisonment and bondage of Marina in Atame 
and the "rape" scene in Kika. The latter, though ironic in its political 
reference and cinematic arrangement (Kika's position on the "bot- 
tom" as the position for women in society; Juana, bound, gagged, 
with her back to the rape pointing to the silence often destined to 
domestic violence episodes), has been rendered as demeaning and 
humiliating to women in its depiction of violence against them 
(Martm-Marqucz 30) and was assigned an NC-1 7 rating in the United 
States. 

Puig's camp humor, though perhaps less jarring than Almodovar's, 
is pervasive throughout his work and most noticeable in The Buenos 
Aires Affair, which presents exaggerated characters with excessive 
sexual needs, and in Kiss of the Spider Woman, whose protagonist Molina 
is the epitome of the camp aesthete. While recounting film plots to 
his cellmate Valentin, Molina often mentions details of the dress worn 
by the female protagonists and set decoration; When narrating the 
zombie film, he remembers that the protagonist is; 

not very tall, a French actress, but busty and thin at the same 
time, with a liny waist, a really tight evening gown, with lots 
of cleavage, strapless, remember? 
-No. 

-Yes, come on, Ihose that looked like they were serving you 

their tits on a tray. 

- Don't make me laugh, please. 

-Those boned gowns, with wires sown inside. And they were 
like: Would you like some tit? (122) 

This passage is one among many in Puig's novels that combine a 
camp delight in the details of an elaborate costume with a comic 
perception of the artifice of fashion; yet this combination clashes 
ironically with the fact that, aside from the humorous detail, the 
two parties in the conversation are in prison, far from the glitz and 
the glamour of the silver screen. 

Babuscio notes that, in its blending of the comic and the serious, camp 
representation has often been overlooked or dismissed as zany or odd; 

The Mind's Eye 29 



Gmziana Ramsdun 



yet through its presentation of irony and humor, it consents to ob- 
serve "serious" issues from a detached position, and "after the event, 
we are struck by the emotional and moral implications of what we 
have almost passively absorbed" (28). The "serious" considerations, 
especially concerning sexuality and gender, are central to camp rep- 
resentation, in spite of its tongue-in-cheek mockery. As a character 
states in the groundbreaking notes on camp in Christopher fsherwood's 
1954 novel The World in the Evening; "You can't camp about some- 
thing you don't take seriously; you're not making fun of it; you're 
making fun out of it" (54). 

The sexual liberation movement in the late sixties and early sev- 
enties brought about a radically different social critique that made 
necessary a rethinking not only of the structure of society and of the 
roles individuals played but also of the weight of gender and sexuality 
in the determination of those roles, At that time, besides its aesthetic- 
character as a sensibility, camp also assumed a political signification 
as the oppositional discourse of the "queer." This latter term was now 
a reappropriation of the derogatory label that had often been used to 
indicate the homosexual as well as a confrontational strategy to "fling 
back at America an ugly word that the country had used to oppress 
nonstraight people" (Benshoff 7). When the AIDS crisis exploded 
in the eighties, activist groups such as Queer Nation were formed to 
demand that the U.S. government respond not only to the health 
concerns but also to issues of discrimination. In academia. Queer 
Theory, as the theoretical arm of Queer Nation, focuses specifically 
on the reconsideration of sexuality as a sociocultural product and not 
as a biological identity or an anatomical property. In addition to that. 
Queer Theory investigates the aesthetic representations of sexual be- 
havior (be it hetero-, homo- or bisexual, sadomasochistic or disabled, 
transgender or transvestite, etc.) not so much taking into account 
prohibitions and restrictions but rather in light of the consequent pro- 
liferation of pleasures associated with it (Spargo 23). 

Puig had advanced a similar "theorization" of sexuality in a 1 979 
interview, where he expressed his conception of sexuality not in terms 
of homo- or heterosexuality hut of hisexuality: "Forme the only natu- 
ral sexuality is hisexuality: that is, total sexuality. . . . With a person of 
your own gender, with a person of the opposite gender, with an ani- 
mal, with a plant, with anything" (Christ 574). In the last footnote of 

30 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramsden 



Elbeso de tamujeraraha, "disguised' as Danish sexologist Anneli Taube, 
Puig had already advocated in favor of bisexuality following Dennis 
Altman's proposal (Homosexuality: Oppression and Liberation [1 971 ] ) thai 
the lack of models of bisexuality obliges males and females into 
accepting, often unwillingly, the gender roles established by society 
(Christ 210-21 1 }. In the interview, he objected to the restrictive but 
socially approved categorizations of homosexuality and heterosexu- 
ality: "1 see exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality as 
cultural results, not as natural outcome. If people were really free, I 
think they wouldn't choose within the limits of one sex" (Christ 574). 
In spite of the partial, "queer" nature of these statements, Puig re- 
fused to insist on the political possibilities of his work, especially be- 
cause he disapproved of the militant, "segregationalist" altitude of 
U.S. gay groups: "I see a great danger in the American attitude, and 
that's in the way homosexuals tend to think of themselves as totally 
different from heterosexuals and segregate themselves drastically" 
(Christ 574). Later, on the occasion of the premiere of a stage adap- 
tation of Kiss of the Spider Woman, in a piece called "The Gay Error" 
( 1985). Puig defended the character of Molina against the charges 
that he lacked sufficient heroism to be upheld as a symbol of under- 
ground gay resistance (Levine 262). 

In a sort of "Almodovar A-Z" article, under the heading sexo and 
again in a strikingly similar vein as Puig's statement reported earlier, 
the Spanish filmmaker states: "I deffne myself as pansexual. I like any 
kind of sex, even those that haven't been invented yet" (Zemignan 
12). One of the first European directors to position gay and lesbian, 
as well as transgendered and transvestite, characters in the spotlight, 
Almod ovar represented sexuality as typified by multiple sexual choices: 
Examples of this arc Riza in Labyrinth of Passions, a confused and trau- 
matized bisexual, who finds happiness with nymphomaniac Sexilia; 
Tina in Law of Desire, who as a young boy changed sex to please her 
father, and who, after being abandoned by him, becomes a lesbian; 
Letal in High Heels, a heterosexual man who goes undercover as a 
drag queen to investigate crimes and, while in drag, has intercourse 
with Rebeca. Some critics have argued that Almodovar's sexually 
coded narratives are intended as a shock tactic to open a debate on 
sexuality in Spain (Allinsoi) 93), yet, from a Queer point of view, the 
interesting aspect of such a depiction of endless sexual possibilities is 



The Mind's Eye 31 



Graziana Ramsden 



found in the Spanish filmmaker's rejection of a fixed sexual identity 
in favor of "a celebration of the 'unnaturalness' and fluidity of all 
sexuality" (Burston 142). 

Queer Theory finds its stronghold in Michel Foucault's work, 
which defined sexuality as a construct of various discourses such as 
medicine and the law; in Eve K. Sedgwick's deconstructive approach 
to the human dynamics of Western culture and to the binarism of 
hetero-/homo- sexuality; and in Judith Butler's feminist revisitation 
of performance theory to explain sexuality and gender as acts that 
humans learn and interiurize through repetition. Within this con- 
text, Mne Meyer, borrowing Hutcheon's concept of parody as imita- 
tion with critical distance, argues that camp functions as "queer 
parody" ( I ), a political and critical signifying practice that makes evi- 
dent the power relationships between social agents such as the law, the 
media and organized religion that codify certain texts, and those 
texts that subversively recodify them through parody. Camp in these 
textual practices renders the homosexual identity visible through rep- 
resentation: "The function of camp ... is the production of queer 
visibility" (5), This phenomenon is openly dealt with in Puig's Kiss of 
the Spider Woman and in Almodovar's Law of Desire, which, by 
foregrounding gay characters, not only entail a request to Spanish- 
speaking audiences to acknowledge homosexuality as a lifestyle but 
also imply an inevitable identification of the sexuality of the fictional 
characters with their creators'. 

In spite of its politicization, camp productivity has obviously re- 
mained inseparable Irom a focus on style, whether with a critical aim 
or for its inspirational qualities. Witness to this is the excess that typifies 
the representational aspects of camp, intensified by the overwhelming 
presence of sensual details and of artifice, as we can observe in 
Almodovar's rich color scheme and elaborate sets, and in Puig's or- 
nate descriptions, as well as his focus on sentiments and sensations. 
Such excess is often incongruous with the narratives of camp, which 
tend to focus, as Johannes von Moltke explains, on the "dialectics of 
social power and sexual desire" (80). In his article on the films of 
German director Rainer W. Fassbinder, von Moltke argues that melo- 
drama is a very fertile terrain not only for camp representation but 
also for the deconstruction of sexuality essential to queer critique. 
Regardless of the specifically queer essence of camp, a striking simi- 

32 The Mind's Eye 



Graziana Ramsden 



larity exists between "the generic excesses of the melodramatic mode 
and the excessive reading performed along the lines of camp" (82). 

Melodrama lends itself to the camp project insofar as it is a very 
popular film genre as well as a pervasive mode of representation. 
The "melodramatic mode" seems to be a common narrative principle 
in contemporary narratives. Peter Brooks proposes a theorization of 
the melodramatic mode as a "mode of conception and expression, as a 
certain fictional system making sense of experience" (xiii), character- 
ized by reliance on excess, on "the desire to express all" (4) in a 
manner that appeals to the senses of the reader by exploiting sensa- 
tion, suspense and titillation. The melodramatic mode, as an 
organized body of fictional conventions, can be considered an 
accessory to the narrative in various genres, from novel (mystery, 
gothic, romance) to film (noir, horror, Westerns, musicals) to music 
(tango, bolero, love sung): It does not determine the genre itself but 
characterizes an episode in the narration or the actions and reactions 
of a character. 

Camp fascination with classic cinema and its stars described by 
Ross consents to indulge in the old-Hollywood glamour and theatri- 
cality. Puig, as has been extensively pointed out by critics, was at- 
tracted to the silver screen to the point of incorporating its stars as 
characters in his novels: In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, for exampfe, the 
character of Dona Sol, played by the actress in Blood and Sand, marks 
a defining moment in the narrative, when little Toto comes to the 
realization that not all wicked characters are ugly, and it is exactly 
that wickedness that made the character of Dofia Sol attractive to his 
father. In Pubis Angelical, one of Ana's dreams resembles Hedy Lamarr's 
life story, first as the wife of a jealous millionaire with a Nazi connec- 
tion and later as a misunderstood actress in Hollywood. The epigraphs 
of The Buenos Aires Affair, taken from Hoflywood films starring the 
most acclaimed classic Hollywood stars of the thirties and forties (Joan 
Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo), form a sort of 
camp goddess pantheon, where their impressive star power becomes 
a synonym of ideaf womanhood for the camp aesthete. Almodovar 
has shown the same attachment to classic Hollywood, though his pref- 
erence is extended to the stars of the fillies and sixties: In addition to 
the pervasive visual relerences to Marilyn Monroe (witness an early 
picture of himself and his brother Timn in front of the famous Bus 



The Mind's Eye 33 



Graziana Ramsden 



Stop poster), in the closing credits of All About My Mother, he dedicates 
the Oscar- winning film to Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands and Romy 
Schneider as a tribute "to all the actresses who have played actresses" 
and as homage to the theatrical quality of the performative art par 
excellence. 

to addition to paying homage to Hollywood glamour, camp 
cinephilia also critiques the sexual roles and rigid identities portrayed 
in the highly deterministic plots of melodrama, A theatrical genre 
before the days of cinema, melodrama presents highly emotional as 
well as sensational situations featuring characters generally divided 
between villains and victims. The ethical foundation of melodrama is 
the inevitable triumph of good over evil, which reflects not only the 
highly moralistic premise of the genre but also its bourgeois idealism. 
Feminist criticism in the seventies and eighties revealed how melo- 
drama, especially the classic Hollywood films, offered an undignified 
portrait of women to match "the needs of the patriarchal psyche" 
(Gledhill 1), which favors highly stereotyped characters and a veiled 
though omnipresent concern for sex and sexuality. Up until the end of 
the sixties, before the modernist separation between "high" and "low" 
culture was reconsidered, melodrama was negatively classified among 
those cultural products that addressed a massified audience. Its "low" 
cultural status was accentuated by its simplistic emotional and moral- 
ist nature as well as by its appeal to women; in fact, from the thirties 
through the sixties, melodrama became synonymous with "the 
woman's film," and treated "'female' problems revolving around do- 
mestic life, the family, children, self-sacrifice" (Doane 3). Regarding 
the assumption that a genre that appealed to women had to be consid- 
ered "low" culture, Molly Haskell rightly seethed: "The concept 
of a 'woman's film,' and of 'women's fiction' as a separate category of 
art (and/or kitsch) . , . carries the implication that women, and there- 
fore women's emotional problems, are of minor significance" (153). 
The association between melodrama and kitsch is not accidental: At 
the heart of kitsch lies a sentimentality that has the ability to trans- 
form any object into something banal and unnatural {Dorfles 221); 
similarly at the heart of melodtama lies the same sentimentality that 
has the power to alter emotions into an excessive double — happiness 
becomes ecstasy; sadness, despair; and spontaneity, theatricality. In 
addition to that, both address the same massified audience who see 

34 The Mind's Eye 



Graiiana Ramsdcn 



their moral values embodied in melodrama and their artistic aspira- 
tions expressed by kitsch. 

Intended for women, melodrama was populated by female char- 
acters who have become synonymous with it (Mildred Pierce, Stella 
Dallas, Jezebel, Queen Christina} and with their stars (Joan Crawford, 
Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo). In their reprise of the 
melodramatic tradition, Puig and Almodovar often place female (or 
female- identified, such as Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman) charac- 
ters at the center of their narratives. In his review of The Flower of My 
Secret, Guillermo Cabrera Infante brings together the names of Puig 
and Almodovar for their careful crafting of their female protagonists: 
"There arc authors, like Manuel Puig, who know women better than 
many men. . . . Almodovar projects himself a lot, like Manuel used to 
do" ( 1 ). Puig's favoring of female characters can be found in his min- 
gling with the women of bis family at an early age: 

The women's world fascinated me when 1 was a child: their 
dresses, their makeup, their afternoon strolls and especially 
the gossip. My mother was one of my favorite playmates. ... I 
learned a lot from her and her friends, and my aunts pro- 
vided me with a lot of data that I brought out in my books. 
(Almada Roche 153) 

Whereas the "competition" between prominent male and female 
characters is stronger in Puig, only in Almodovar's Matador, Law of 
Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Llesh and Talk to Her (2002) are 
male characters protagonists of the story. For his frequent, early col- 
laboration with "muse" Carmen Maura, Almodovar can be compared 
to Italian modernist director Michelangelo Antonioni, who centered 
the action on female characters — often interpreted by Monica Vitti — 
and was referred to as "a women's director." Almodovar has said, in 
this regard, that female characters as well as actresses have a wider 
range and are more "spectacular" (Cobos and Marias 100). 

For its portrayal of stereotyped gender roles, its exploitation of 
emotionalism and sentimentality and its concern for sex and sexual- 
ity, melodrama is a source of inspiration for camp. The parody of melo- 
drama is not a passive absorption of the signs of mefodrama but a 
reading "against the grain" that ironically tints an idealistic, bourgeois 
representation of gender roles and sexuality with queer colorings. For 



The Mind's Eye 35 



Graziana Ramsden 



this reason, camp representation privileges ironic, sometimes shocking 
portrayals o( sexuality, be it in the prolonged sex scenes of Almodovar's 
High Heels or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, for example, or in the ironically 
pathological masturbatory fantasies in Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair or 
in the state -mandated sex work of Pubis Angelical. 

As critics have reiterated, the queer critique of camp has the abil- 
ity to blur, to "cut across" borders of taste by revamping kitsch objects 
(Bourdieu 198), as well as to twist the significations of gender and 
sexuafity: In Tendencies (1993). Sedgwick has pointed out how the 
root of the word "queer," the Indo-European, twerkw, which yields 
words such as the Italian torcere (twist) as well as the German quer 
(transverse), means, in fact, "across" (xii). Puig's and Almodovar's 
camp infuses the parody of melodrama with its own meanings, and 
aims at pointing out the inadequacies of the traditional gender sys- 
tem, whose inherent tensions remain unresolved in favor of a stream- 
lining along the lines of heterosexual sexuality, thus excluding gay- 
men, lesbians, transgendered, transvestites, cross-dressers and other 
queer sexualities. 

Camp, "the signpost of contemporary popular culture of pre- 
Stonewall queerdom" (Cleto 1), has long exercised an enigmatic power 
over critics and camp followers, a power initially defined within the 
boundaries of the "aesthetically pleasing" and the "culturally super- 
fluous," later inscribed within the academic domain of Queer studies, 
and developed on the basis of theoretical and historical frameworks 
of cultural analysis. While in the early part of this past century, camp 
was recognizable only to few ("Camp is in the eye of the beholder, 
especially if the beholder is camp" [Core 7]), in the later years, it has 
been identified as a discourse of resistance that is politically incorrect 
as well as prone to excess, as demonstrated by its "camping sites" 
(Booth 42) populated by diverse characters paired up in unorthodox 
and sometimes perverse coupling; Oscar Wilde with E, M. Forster and, 
by extension, with the directorial duo Merchant-Ivory; Mozart with 
David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Lou Reed; Maria Caltas with Carmen 
Miranda; Caravaggio with Andy Warhol, and many more. 

In this study I have contextual! zed the works of Manuel Puig and 
of Pedro Almodovar within the redemptive aesthetics of camp with 
an eye to the underlying queer political agenda of gender critique, 
and I have explored these artists' choice of ironic reprise of the canons 

1,6 The Mind's Eye 



Gramm RamsJen 



of melodrama to carry out that agenda. Furthermore, the eclectic 
nature of their work, borrowing and mixing popular culture materi- 
als while maintaining a skeptical distance marked by the use of irony 
and self- reflexive techniques, is consistent with the postmodern re- 
evaluation of the so-called lowbrow forms of art and of entertain- 
ment. The cultural and historical milieu of postmodernism, aside from 
blurring the boundaries between "high" and "low" culture products, 
is also characterized by the tendency toward a weakening of absolute 
truths and values, which furthers the queer critique of sexual and 
gender roles. 



Works Cited 

Allinsnn, Mark. A Spanish Labyrinth: "The Films of Pedro Almodovar." 

London: Tauris, 2001. 
Afmada Roche, Armando. Buenos A ires, icudndo sera el dia que me quieras?. 

Buenos Aires: Vinciguerra, 1992. 
Babuscio, Jack. "Camp and the Gay Sensibility." Camp Grounds. Ed. 

David Bergman. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 
Benshuff, Harry. "Notes on Gay History / Queer Theory / Queer Film." 

http : / / www.unt.edu/ally / queerfilm .h tml . 10/15/01. 
Booth, Mark. Camp. London: Quartet, 1983. 
Bourdieu. Pierre. Distinction. New York: Routledge, 1989. 
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: "Bal/.ac, Henry James, 

Melodrama and the Mode of Excess." New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 

1976 and 1995. 

Burston, Paul What Are You Looking At?: "Queer, Sex, Style and Cin- 
ema." London: Cassell. 1995. 

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. "El Indisereto secreto de Pedro Almodovar." 
September 1995. http://www.clubcultura.com/almodovar/esp/ 
peli_flor4.htm. 10/27/00. 

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: "Modernism, Avant-Garde, Deca- 
dence, Kitsch, Postmodernism." Durham, NC; Duke UP, 1987. 

Christ, Ronald. "A Last Interview with Manuel Puig." World Literature 
Today 65.4 (Autumn 1991): 571-578. 



The Mind's Bye 37 



Graziana Ramsden 

Cleto, Fabio, ed. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Ann 

Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999. 
Cobos, Juan, and Miguel Marias. "Almodovar secreto" Nickel Odeon 1 

(1995): 74-149. 

Corbatta, Jorgclina. "Encuentros con Manuel Puig. " Revista Iberoamericana 

49.123-124(1983): 591-620. 
Core, Philip. Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth. New York: Delilah, 1 984. 
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: "The Woman's Film of the 1940s." 

Bloomingtun: Indiana UP, 1987. 
Donoso, Jose, Historia Personal del "Boom." Barcelona: Anagrams, 1972. 
Dorfles, Gillo. Kitsch: The World of 'Bad Taste. New York: Universe, 1969, 
Giordano, Alberto. Manuel Puig: La conversation infinita. Rosario: Beatriz 

Viterbo, 2001. 

Gledhill, Christine. Home Is Where the Heart fa: "Studies on Melodrama 
and the Woman's Film." London: British Film Institute, 1987. 

Gomez de la Serna, Ramon. "Lo cursi y otros ensayos. " Buenos Aires: 
Sudamericana, 1943. 

Gonzalez Echcvarria, Roberto. La ruta de Severe Sarduy. Hanover: 
Ediciones del Norte. 1987. 

Habermas, Jiirgen. "Modernity Versus Postmodernity. " New German 
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Harguindey, Angel S. "El placer de leer." Bebelia, 14Jan. 1995:4-5. 

Herman, David J. "Modernism vs. Postmodernism: Towards an Ana- 
lytic Distinction." Poetics Today 12.1 (1991): 55-86. 

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody. New York: Methuen, 1985. 

, The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989. 

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: "Modernism, Mass Culture, 
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Isherwood, Christopher. The World in the Evening. New York: Noon- 
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Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capi- 
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Kinder, Marda. "Pleasure and the New Spanish Mentality: A Conver- 
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Levine, Suzanne J. Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: "His Life and 

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MacAdam, Alfred. "Manuel Puig's Chronicles of Provincial Life." Revista 

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Martin Marquez, Susan. Feminist Discourses and Spanish Cinema. Ox- 
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Meyer, Moe, ed . The Politics and the Poetics of Camp. New York: Routledge, 
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Modleski, Tania. "Femininity as Mas(s)querade: A Feminist Approach 
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Navajas, Gonzalo. "La antisublime posmoderno y el imperative en jAtame! 

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Zemignan, Roberto. Pedro Almodovar. Venice: Circuitocinema, 1991. 



The Mind's Eye 39 



Narrative of Surprising 

Conversions: Irv in New York 

BY THOMAS WESTON FELS 

From 1969 to 1973 ! lived on a farm commune in western Massa- 
chusetts. In 1979 and 1980, ten years after arriving at the farm and 
some six after having left, I set out to see what had become of my 
peers in alternative life, a project that continues to the present. A 
section of the resulting work, Farm Friends, Family Stories 1 969- 
1999, in which we are introduced to my old farm friend Irv, is ex- 
cerpted below. 

What surprised me from the start was that the best place to 
look for my friends from the farm was New York. Many of 
them had gravitated there. If they weren't permanently 
settled, they were comfortably camped; and if they had managed even 
more successfully to resist the magnetic forces of the city, they at least 
passed through it with some regularity. 

As children of the sixties, my farm friends had seen themselves as 
different. When 1 knew them, they had been people who had not 
only given up but emphatically thrown away the chance to live the 
life of which New York was the acknowledged capital, choosing in- 
stead a life of quiet sanity, tucked away in the country, tending their 
much discussed gardens. 

hi 1969, when I moved to the farm, or even as late as 1973, when 
I left, it would have seemed unbelievable that 1979 would find a 
sizable portion of the farm's freedom-loving family, for whom sim- 
plicity, privacy, nature and independence were prized above any mate- 



40 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Pels 



rial thing, in the world's greatest city, a crowded, class-ridden, 
antibiological, materialistic commercial center of the very first mag- 
nitude. But if this was a surprise, it was only the first of many. 

I found Irv at a law office on the 26th floor of a building over- 
looking Broadway in the financial district. Below, the tall spire of 
Trinity Church was dwarfed by the giant edifices of business. Beyond 
the roofs of neighboring buildings, he pointed out Ellis Island, through 
which his grandparents had passed not such a long time before. 

Irv had been a serious farmer, builder and mechanic, and it had 
been with some surprise that I had learned that he had later gone on 
to law school. 

"We used to say that you should move to the country, and then 
find some way to make a living," he said in explanation; "but it seemed 
better to me to make some money and then move to the country," 

The law offices were done in a French motif, vacuously tasteful 
decor that might have suited the State Department, or the fancy res- 
taurant of Howard Johnson's dreams. The echoes of fashion and 
Versailles were remote. Leaving the office I reentered the world of 
the corridor, anonymous and public. The gold-shaded lights slopped 
with the carpet at the doot. 

Later I went to Irv's loft for dinner. I called, as instructed, from a 
comer phone in a dark commercial district in the 20s. Maggie, with 
whom he shared the place, came down and let me in. Theie was 
nothing as civilized as a buzzer. 

The three of us had a late dinner and watched one ot Irv's law 
professors on television; he and Irv were writing a book. We talked 
about the farm, about the Vermont town in which we had both lived 
for severaf years, about his early farming days in Pennsylvania. He 
recounted the story of the farm's great yellow cat's eating Susan's 
sandwich, made from the last food in the house, as she prepared for 
her first day of work — an omen of what farm life would be like. He 
described a midnight visit from our mutual friend Marshall shortly 
before his death by suicide, an attempt, he thought, to settle his debts. 

"1 just stood there cursing him," said Irv. "It was at my house as 
the inn — do you remember that?" 

"T'.m just going to wait here till you're through,' Marshal] had 
said, so I went right ahead," Irv continued, "and he did wait." 

That's the two of them, unmistakable. 



The Mind's Eye i\ 



Thomas Weston Pels 



Late in the evening our friend Margaret showed up, She was in 
town for a voice lesson. When in the city, she stays with Irv. They 
settled in. Maggie shut her door with a suggestive bang. I decamped 
for the subway. 

The next morning 1 met Irv at his office for funch. Lines were 
long at his favorite yogurt and salad bars, so we grabbed shish kebab 
from a street vendor and ate as we walked, We studied the historic 
architecture of the Wall Street area, and compared the merits of vari- 
ous new buildings. Irv expounded on the symbolic statuary of the old 
Customs House, and pointed out the Downtown Athletic Club where 
he swims and works out. After lunch he called his office, but found 
he was not needed. He wasn't needed later in the afternuon, cither, 
nor was he needed in the morning. When I considered the tidy sum 
he was being paid each day whether he was needed or not, I thought 
law school hadn't been such a bad idea. 

At 2:30 Irv had to be up in the West Village with Bruce. Together 
wiiti iome others they were looking over a nine-story commercial 
property. Bruce needed space for his film business, Irv wanted a place 
to live, others simply wanted to invest. This was the first I bad heard 
of Bruce in some time, so I went along. 

Irv and I arrived first, then John, an architect and neighbor of 
Irv's whom he wanted to involve in the project. We were joined in 
short order by the building's superintendent and a representative of 
the owner. A minute later Bruce jumped out of an unmarked cab. A 
former drug dealer who had paid his debt with several years as an 
inmate in Attica, he wore his graying hair and beard neatly trimmed. 
His tweed sports coat and clean Levis bridged the gap between the 
formality of business and his independent personal style. Bruce and 
John were introduced and we went in. 

Enthusiasm was high on the part of all involved, with the excep- 
tion of the architect, who appeared dour and suspicious the entire 
time we were in the building, but it was Bruce who was the most 
obviously engaged. With an incredible though completely unself- 
conscious display of energy, he literally ran through the building. From 
top to bottom, from floor to floor, he disappeared around corners and 
into distant rooms long before anyone could catch up. He saw every- 
thing. He poked into bathrooms and closets, and when we got to the 
roof, he climbed to the top of the walls and peeked down on all four 



42 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Pels 



sides. The result of this burst of energy was quick comprehension. 
Much of the building was currently unused. Unlike a set of apart- 
ments with their many tiny spaces, the rooms were mostly large, if 
not vast. It was not hard to get a good picture of the building as a 
whole: He liked it. 

After looking at the cavernous ground floor with its thick pillars 
and giant bays where a huge tractor-trailer was being unloaded, we 
went up to the roof, then worked our way down again to the base- 
ment. The top floor was being used by a rehabilitation program. To 
get from the efevator to the roof we had to move through groups of 
timid, helpless, retarded adults who acted much like teenagers at a 
very dull party, Some were making and packing candles, but for the 
most part they were milling around, talking and holding hands. They 
presented a strange scene. I've rarely felt more out of place than I did 
moving through this throng of otherworldly people, under the gaze 
of their curious, unveiled eyes, with a group of well-heeled men who 
would probably take the floor right out from under them. No one 
asked us what we were doing; whatever it was, it was far beyond 
their control. We could as easily have represented the city, the gov- 
ernment, the army or the Mob as the ownets of the building. 

The view from the roof was open to the north and west. The 
Hudson was visible nearby, the cityscape quite open, The building 
was relatively new, built early in the century, perhaps in the twenties 
or thirties. It was of yellow brick and of early modern design, remi- 
niscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson's Wax tower. There were 
windows on three sides, with a good deal of light near the edges. The 
west was a blind, abutting wall; whatever had been there had been 
torn down to make room for the playground that now took up the 
rest of the block. We inspected the roof itself, on which we were walk- 
ing, then the water tanks and sprinkler system that were housed there. 
Bruce was pleased, and said he'd heard that the sprinkler system was 
particularly good. Irv and John nodded in knowledgeable accord. 

The seventh floor was a large, empty space, its old cedar paneling 
painted a dirty pinkish white. The scent of a perfume company lin- 
gered in the air, though there was nothing more than an old handbill 
to indicate that it had ever had any existence in the material realm. 
John continued to be skeptical. Bruce continued to run around, Irv 
pulled some papers from the inside pocket of his comically ill-fitting 



The Mind's Eye 43 



Thomas Weston Pels 



suit and retired with John to a sunny window to discuss the building's 
balance sheet. The building was losing money, but, as Irv pointed 
out, it was only hah rented. 

In the basement we noted the ample electrical service and the 
six-inch gas main — a rypical residential line is about one quarter of 
an inch. The building was evidently well kept. The boilers were beau- 
tiful and clean. 

We split up to discuss matters in private. The real-estate man stayed 
with the superintendent; the rest of us went outside. 

"What do you think?" Irv and Bruce asked John. 

To everyone's surprise, John produced a set of drawings he had 
done for an earlier client. His whole act of doubtfulness had been a 
ploy. He was already familiar with the building. They discussed resto- 
ration, square footage, co-op, rental building codes and historic dis- 
tricts, The architect who when in the building had Found only fault 
allowed that it was actually worth twice the price that was being asked, 

"Seriously," he said, "I know fifteen people who would like to 
buy this building, but where are you going to get the money?" They 
talked mortgages, refinancing and investment. 

The money was no problem, said Bruce; he already had it. But he 
represented others— what would the return on investment be? 

It was good. It looked, in fact, as if the building would be paying 
for itself in short order. 

"It's not a bad buy," Irv said to me later, hopeful, as we headed for 
the Village for some coffee and a place to sit down and discuss what 
we had seen. "It's small, but it's very nice." 

"What does it cost?" tasked. 

"Two million." he said. 

• • • 

On Saturday I met Irv at Zabar's, on the West Side, a block or two 
from our friend Jesse's, where I had been visiting. It was packed. Af- 
ter a brief tour of the store, which Irv — who considers himself my 
teacher in the folkways of New York— thought essential, we piled 
into his battered old yellow station wagon and headed off to various 
errands. 

Of all the people 1 met at the farm, Irv was among the most 
congenial and interesting. He was resilient and adaptable, qualities 
that were a tribute and not a threat to his character. He had few 



44 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Pels 



preconceptions about himself and was a good and forgiving judge of 
others. It was impossible to fit Irv's ideas and experiences into some 
single and appropriate conception of the entire person that he was, 
and he seemed to accept this, even to like it. He was the willing 
embodiment of impossibility, an improbable figure, a walking enigma. 

Irv was short and heavy. He usually wore dirty jeans and a gray 
sweatshirt, and was himself often of a gray cast either from fieldwork 
or from farm machinery. But this was only a guise, for issuing from 
bis mouth, in a difficult to identify patois perhaps associated with his 
Long Island roots, laced with Ds for the more recognizable th (dis, 
dat), were learned and imaginative statements of a high order. Stop- 
ping work on the transmission of his truck to take a break, or perhaps 
just prompted by something he had to say, frv would hold forth on 
politics, psychology, religion or history. His views were not only in- 
teresting but formidable. In his slow-moving way he would patiently 
explain some aspect of Marx or The Brothers: Karamazov, a twinkle in 
his eye, as he shook a thick finger at you to emphasize the point. 

It was from this disjunction of appearance and substance that Irv 
had originally gained notoriety. In the superficial world of the college 
to which we along with a number of others at the farm had gone, a 
freshman who quoted Bakunin, Kazantzakis and Jung from memory 
was enough to send most of the rushing chairmen packing. But Irv 
was not a bookworm. He was observant and thoughtful and read- 
ing was only one of his interests. He was difficult to categorize, but 
that was part of his appeal. 

Irv turned out to be a great deal more than a mere curiosity. As 
he became better known, he was sought out by others than the fra- 
ternity types who had assumed that he was destined for the offensive 
line of the football team. These were people who recognized his abili- 
ties, humor and depth and became his friends. It was through these 
later mutual friends that I heard of him. 

These were peers from college, most of whom I have rarely seen 
again. But in the time I knew Irv he did make two friends of whom I 
saw a great deal. Irv is not one to go only hallway, and when he came 
under the inlluence first of Greg and then of Aaron, it set him on a 
track that carried him along for several years. 

Greg was a friend of Irv's from the college. He was a restless, 
romantic figure, utterly self-sufficient and entirely without the need 

The Mind's Bye A3 



Thomas Weston Fels 



to court the approval of others. He did what he wanted. He was tall, 
thin and good-looking; together, he and Irv were suddenly transmuted 
into Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. 

Greg could be socially acceptable, and even socially adept when 
he chose to be, but that was rare. He was much more at home as a 
fun-ioving joker, a devil's advocate. Beneath his controlled exterior 
time seemed to hang heavily on his hands. His alternating mannerliness 
and amusing unmannerliness appeared to be equally facetious acts of 
boredom, attempts to fend off a case of terminal ennui. 

Like frv, Greg was an anomaly at the college. He was a reformed 
delinquent something his graceful style, when he turned it on, made 
hard to believe. He was also a confirmed farmer. He sometimes used 
the period between classes and exams to go home to Pennsylvania to 
plow or plant. On the wall of his room were large road signs from his 
hometown, mementos of his gang's final binge. 

fn recent years Greg's energy had developed along a more prom- 
ising line. He traveled, and he paid for his trips by importing bric-a- 
brac that he then resold at great profit. His room was a storehouse of 
rattan furniture and tasteless carved idols. 

Greg didn't go to the places everyone else did, distinguishing him 
from those around him. While others traveled to Paris and London, 
basking in the overexposed aura of Western culture, Greg traveled to 
Central America, Morocco and Arabia. 

As a senior in high school Greg had won a Rotary scholarship. In 
what he later described as merely an attempt to get away from school, 
he had spent a year studying and traveling in the Philippines, speak- 
ing to Rotary clubs and learning the folkways of a foreign country. 
From then on he traveled whenever he could. 

Irv accompanied Greg to Guatemala, and later on his own made 
trips to Central and South America. On one trip he got all the way to 
Tierra del Fuego. Irv's talk at the farm was constantly laced with sto- 
ries of Guatemala, Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. He loved to dwell on the 
primitive methods of travel in South America, and we all wondered 
how he had gotten anywhere at all: an ancient train that caught fire 
as it crossed the Pampas; hitching through Argentine cattle country; 
looking down into a steep valley from a bus teetering through the 
Andes to see the skeletons of other wrecked buses below. He told 
stories of the colorful markets, he had snapshots of himself in a bar in 

46 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Feb 



the cordillera that served only home-brewed liquor and developed 
the habit of keeping a macaw on his shoulder. 

After college Greg taught school in Arabia. When he came back, 
he had money in his pocket. He returned to Pennsylvania and de- 
cided to try commercial-scale farming. Irv joined him. In previous 
years Greg's summer farming had been on rented land, so they rented 
a farm and equipment, collected some friends to help with the work 
and spent the summer growing vegetables, mostly corn, for their road- 
side stand. 

They worked hard but had a good time, and didn't take them- 
selves too seriously. When the summer was over they found that they 
had not made the great leap forward into commercial farming they 
had expected. With the money they had left they built and outfitted a 
tiny house on the back of a big old International (latbed truck, fur- 
nished it with, among other things, carpeting, a wood stove and two 
rocking chairs, painted it an unmistakable yellow and headed for 
Guatemala. Late in the fall they returned, and one morning we woke 
up to find them parked in our barnyard. The furniture filtered into 
the house and eventually became community property. The truck 
became our indispensable farm truck. The walls of the house became 
a hog pen. For the rest of my time at the farm, tasteless carved idols 
turned up unexpectedly in odd comers. 

Irv stayed and Greg moved on. Once having arrived at the farm, 
Irv look things in hand, at least as much as that was possible there. 
He was a doer. In his time at the farm he built buildings, operated 
equipment and fixed it when necessary and occasionally stopped to 
read or travel. He considered himself our farming expert, and bought 
a tractor, a plow and a disk harrow to go with it. He wanted to con- 
tinue to farm on a commercial scale, and heaped abundant scorn on 
backyard gardeners and back-to-the-land hippies. None of this went 
over very well with the others at the farm, who were both of those 
and decidedly noncommercial. Eventually, Irv felt his efforts to be 
thankless, and the rest of us unforesightful, and moved to a neigh- 
boring farm. 

Irv found a companion in his high work standards and his recast 
intellectual life in Aaron, a local recluse. Aaron was no ordinary re- 
cluse (in the sixties no one was ordinary), or perhaps — all recluses 
sharing the oddness of their habits — he was. Fleeing graduate school 



The Mind's Eye 47 



Thomas Weston Pels 



and a father who was a well-known scholar and teacher, he had taken 
to the woods with the vengeance his highly developed interests and 
skills obliged. He was building an exact replica of a Colonial house in 
a remote clearing in the woods, and doing it entirely by hand. 

This was the kind of effort Irv could appreciate. While Irv was 
unwilling to abandon his tractor and truck and thoughts of large- 
scale farming simply to comply with Aaron's purism, Aaron's integ- 
rity and tenacity appealed to him; he felt he could learn from him, i 
think Irv could see that while by one standard Aaron was thinking 
small, by another he was thinking big; for while he was focusing his 
entire life on a single building, and that, notwithstanding his social- 
ism, only for himself, it would be a gem. 

Everything Aaron did he did well, and he did everything. He sawed 
down trees and milled them into boards. He hewed his own beams. 
He routed and planed his own paneling and windows in the Colonial 
style. He split his own shakes and laid up his own masonry. He even 
made his own nails. Aaron's insistence on perfection was so great 
that I once helped him replace one of the principal beams of the house, 
which he had hewn by hand himself, and was already notched into 
place, only because it had developed a slight bend. 

Aaron was self-sufficient on a more challenging and total scale 
than we were at the farm, yet since his system was geared to him 
alone, it was more realistic in its demands on him, and he got much 
further with it toward meeting his particular needs. It was neater and 
worked better than our ill-defined subsistence, which tended to be- 
come merely antiestablishment and to have no more positive basis 
than our general disapproval of traditional middle-dass American life. 

Aaron made room for Irv in his work. Irv helped him tear down 
barns and houses for materials that Aaron sold, along with his own 
handmade beams and paneling, for decoration and restoration. He 
was well known, and his work was in great demand. Once in a while 
they would load up a truck and drive their handiwork down to 
Connecticut or Long Island, where the materials had been ordered by 
a contractor. They would remove slate from roofs and carefully store 
it. They cleaned old brick for reuse. They were particularly interested 
in beams and in siding, because it brought such a good price — even 
though a room paneled with old barn boards would have been totally 
anathema to Aaron. Old yellow pine floorboards, first-cut from the 

48 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston fell 



New England virgin forest, pine such as we will never see again, went, 
naturally, to an old-yellow-pine-floorboard specialist. Aaron did things 
right. He and Irv were like a couple of squirrels storing nuts. 

Aaron taught frv how to use his tools and to appreciate some of 
the finer points of building by hand. Later, when frv built himself a 
house at a neighboring farm, he used what Aaron had taught him. 
His tiny house had a slate roof, old windows and beams pegged in 
place. It was a beautiful house; it sat on the edge of a tiny clearing in 
the woods and was as enticing as the gingerbread house olHSnseland 
Crete!. It was a bit more forgiving than Aaron's. 

But the house came later. Between trv's move to the farm and his 
move into his own house came another period of his life when he left 
the farm and lived closer to Aaron. He had decided to go back to 
college and, needing to be alone to study, thought that this would be 
a good time to sample for himself the life of the recluse, He moved 
into a rambling old inn about a mile from Aaron's. Like Aaron's house, 
the inn was situated on a seldom used dirt road. It sat in a forest 
woven with a loose fabric of stone walls — evidence of the fields and 
pastures recently reclaimed by nature from the early settlers— in a 
town that had long ceased to have either a town center or a govern- 
ment, and a settlement that probably had not appeared on a map lor 
more than a century. 

Visi ting Irv's ho u se was like wa Iking into one of the culture's aban- 
doned rooms, one thai had been boarded up for years. The forest was 
a thin haze of new hardwoods, tall, delicate and evenly spread. They 
were so straight, thin and even that they looked less like a forest than 
a heavy rain. The fields were still there among them: Nature had as 
yet woven only a gossamer present over the settlers' hard-earned 
past. There was still a sense of balance, as if either side could win, 

I visited one day in January but found that Irv was at the college. 
There was an immense log in the stove that indicated that he planned 
to be out most of the day. Having gone to the trouble of getting there, 
I decided to settle in for a while. There was always the chance that he 
might return, f took my time writing a note, looked at some of his 
books and tried to take in the place. 

He lived in one corner of the old inn. The inn was a long and vast 
building that had aged gracefully, but that in its simple and social 
elegance seemed to resent the unruly presence of the woods steadily 



The Minst's Bye 49 



Thomas Weston Pels 



encroaching on it from all sides. The woods seemed a threat, the sign 
of its certain doom. Forests, after all, continue to grow, while build- 
ings, even the most solid, have only a half-life: Prom the moment of 
their completion, they begin to decay. The inn was still inhabited. 
Besides Irv, far at the other end of the building, lived another friend 
of Aaron's, but the empty rooms between were more than double the 
space the two of them had put together. 

Irv had an upstairs suite warmed by a benevolent Ashley stove. 
His many windows looked out into the surrounding woods. There 
were no other houses or cars for miles. There was snow on the ground 
and in the air; it was very quiet. 

Stepping into Irv's house that day was like stepping out of time. 
Like many an old house, it had ceased to have a specific period; it just 
seemed old, and in seeming out of our time seemed, really, out of 
time altogether. Certain old houses no longer announce themselves 
as having been built in some particular century, or for some par- 
ticular purpose; they read generically as human structures, as pro- 
portion, light and materials. Irv's house and rooms seemed to have 
outlived temporality, and I thought perhaps Irv had, too. A few well- 
chosen books, basic clothes and supplies, a bit of food— looking at 
Irv's rooms, I thought he was after all a good recluse: He had pared 
life down to its essentials and had only succeeded' in making it look 
better. On the way home I watched a flock of wild turkeys grazing in 
the woods. 

After the inn there was the period in which Irv contributed most 
heavily to the life of the farm. He helped design and build, besides his 
own house, a three- story workshop, and continued to farm and mar- 
ket crops, as well as to keep up the hundred other endless tasks of 
farm life. He soon, tired of our nagging democracy, which, in good 
Greek tradition, leveled the outspoken as it quietly absorbed their 
ideas. Irv put out feelers and came up with a new idea, workable and 
bankable. He enlisted the fortune of his friends Oates, a lawyer, and 
David, a dealer in what we now call controlled substances, the ability 
of Greg, the farmer, and the interest and support of a prominent leader 
of the organic gardening movement, and bought a large farm in up- 
state New York to demonstrate the feasibility of organic farming on a 
commercial scale, This venture lasted several years, and certainly could 
have succeeded longer had its founders not moved on to other things. 

50 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Pels 



Finally, perhaps tinder the influence of Oates, a Brahmin drop- 
out who practiced law in his native Cambridge, Irv had a last card up 
his sleeve. Nine years out of college, with a resume that must have 
read like Huckleberry Finn, he graduated from Harvard Law School. 
Farmer turned lawyer, he spent his first summer out of law school 
writing the constitution of a developing nation. When I tried to reach 
him at his office, I got one of his superiors. 

"Ah, you want my friend Irv," she said wistfully, and I knew he 
hadn't changed. 

» • * 

Back at home in New York we enter again the commercial building 
on 20th Street that houses Irv's loft. Getting in requires four keys, one 
for the front door, one for the elevator and two for the apartment. 

"Isn't that sick?" he says, looking at his key ring with perhaps 1 5 
or 20 keys on it. "I tried to get rid of some of these, but I realized that 
I used them all." 

The door opens on his large top-floor space. The loft is New York's 
answer to the rambling spaces we had in the country. There are a 
dining and a living area, a bedroom and study housing his large col- 
lection of books and a curtained-off area in a corner that serves as a 
guest, room. Even with all of this, there is a lot of open space; one 
barely notices the Ping-Pong table. The place is comfortable, though 
without apparent style or the intent to express anything in particular. 
A macaw flutters among the pipes on the ceiling and occasionally 
swoops down to light on a sofa, chair or picture frame. Small change 
is scattered about: dimes and quarters apparently not worth picking 
up. On the table, among other papers, is the wrapper from $ 100 worth 
of new bills marked with the stamp of Irv's bank. A baggage claim 
from Denver indicates that David is in town. In the clutter are some 
fairly large bills. There are two 20s in the dope box, which appears to 
be much used. The accoutrements of domestic cocaine use lie nearby. 
Later, Irv finds another 20, tightly rolled, gathering dust under the 
coffee table, and chuckles at the irony of losing money through sheer 
carelessness and neglect. 

Irv loses no time in getting a long stick and poking the macaw out 
of the ceiling. Five or ten minutes are spent coaxing and chasing the 
bird from beneath chairs and atop tilting picture frames in a playful 
yet intent effort at domestication and mutual understanding. 



The Minis Eye 51 



Thomas Weston Pels 



"Come on, Sal , . . here you go, here you go. . . . Goddamn it, 
come here! Pretty smart, isn't he? . . . Over here . . . that's It... No, 
no. no!" The effort reaches its long-sought-for climax when the bird 
sits on his shoulder. 

This is a serious and regular business between them, and means a 
lot to Irv. 

"He's only done it a couple of times," he says proudly. They talk. 
"Hello. Hello. Hello." 
"Quack!" 
Pure delight. 

After the ritual of Sal's daily training, Irv turns to the other im- 
portant aspects of his daily life: dope, cocaine and rock 'n' roll. We 
turn on his stereo, indulge our bad habits and then go out again. 

I soon tire of shopping with his friend Jan and her grandmother, 
especially since, being the only one without errands, I am often se- 
lected for guard duty and spend a good deal of time sitting nervously 
in an illegally parked car. 

When we drove past Laura's, a painter from the farm family, I 
bowed out. I called her from a nearby phune and dropped by for a 
visit. We went out to dinner at an artists' bar near her apartment, 
across from the American Thread Building, where I had once worked 
with the publisher and writer Paul Williams to try to get a new maga- 
zine off the ground. It didn't. At the artists' bar, paintings by someone 
Laura reminded me had been a farm visitor hung on the wall. She 
clearly appreciated the bohemian ambience. 

We talked about our lives in the years since we had last seen each 
other. Laura seemed happy and more articulate than I remembered. 
Perhaps this had something to do with Werner Erhard's est program, 
of which she was a satisfied product. Laura talked about the life of 
women at the farm, the freedom of relationships, with its inherent 
loosening of the bonds of responsibility, and freedom of dress: the 
easify created dream world of secondhand clothing. She felt Margaret 
was the most obvious of this group. Margaret's room had literally 
been filled with racks of secondhand dresses. We spoke of women's 
dependence on men at the farm. Since going there in 1970 she had 
always had a male in her life to do things. Later, she had been glad to 
be off on her own in Paris, after breaking up with an old friend of 
mine, though even there she said she could have "married a count 

52 The Mind's Eye 



Thomas Weston Feb 



and been set up for life." She valiantly resisted. Instead, she and her 
sister, who are independently wealthy, set up housekeeping in New 
York. Laura supports her artwork fay setting up museum exhibitions. 
Her sister, a curator, is planning 10 adopt a child, 

After seeing Laura I returned with Irv to the loft, and we settled 
in for a long evening, He had invited over his officemate Chris and 
his girlfriend. They arrived and we proceeded with the business of 
the evening: dope, cocaine and rock 'n' roll. Chris was half dead with 
a heavy cold, but we managed, mostly on Irv's indomitable high en- 
ergy, to go through till four a.m. 

Chris's girl was, however, very much alive. 

"I was tempted to jump her myself," Irv said later. 

I could see that this was a distinct possibility. I played Ping-Pong 
with Chris; he was so tense he could barely hold the paddle. 

"A Vietnam vet," Irv had said to me in preparation for the evening: 
"crazy." 

As well as Ping-Pong there were forays into darts and even talk of 
a visit to an after-hours club that didn't open, till five. Irv had a great 
time. He was eager for company. He gloried in the spaciness of the 
night's activities, pointed constantly to the energizing effects of the 
coke and announced each song on the long tape he had made as "a 
classic." 

"Isn't it great?" he shouted later over the music. "Corporate 
America is paying for this lifestyle!" 

Certainly Irv's style of life is a personal victory; about the rest of it 
I'm not so sure. I can't quite figure out what connection Irv's life 
bears to corporate America. It does support him, yet he is utterly 
disdainful of other lawyers, especially young ones, and their habit of 
pulling their work ahead of their personal lives. He pits himself against 
them — rather effortlessly and indirectly, more by noncooperation than 
by anything more active — and against his office, which he refers to 
with a series of four-fetter words strung together to replace the long 
enumeration of Germanic names; yet at times he savors the connection 
he has to them and to that world. 

The difference is, I think, that he has a different kind of life and 
career in mind. He too often puts work first, but he works largely for 
himself and his friends, while the others are content to let someone 
else structure their lives. 



The Mind's Eye 53 



Thomas Weston Feb 



"I'm the most competent person I know in the city," Irv had said 
to me unself-consciously as we cruised along, moving uptown, in his 
old station wagon, the Yellow Blimp. And it is true. The farm people 
are in charge of their own lives, and sometimes those of others as 
well. If they do work for others, it is usually on their own terms; they 
get a reasonable return for their effort. They know how to be effective. 
In contrast, other New Yorkers seem to enjoy paying for services, for 
having things done for them. Whatever good excuses they may have 
for this, it's a different kind ot life. I often found Irv ferrying people 
around in his car as he had done for Jan (a rare service in the city), 
moving things for them and in other ways manipulating the 
environment in a manner uncharacteristic of the city's upper middle 
class. This dilference in approach makes New York a natural sort of 
frontier for farm people. It is an endless absorber of their energies. 
There is a great deal to do in the city, and money and progress to be 
made at a relatively low cost, if one is willing to work and to take a 
different approach. 

On top of this, though, Irv's own personal style adds a distinct 
touch. 

"Know what Steve Kohn's doing?" he asks, referring to a mutual 
college friend, as he bumps his way out of a parking space. The Blimp 
is invincible, and also expendable, and someone has made the mis- 
take of double parking over it. 

"I don't care," says Irv with a dismissive wave of the hand at the 
other car, as he neatly pulls his dented hulk out into the street with a 
scraping sound. The double-parked car, shiny and new, shudders per- 
ceptibly. "It's his own fault," he says, and shakes a pudgy, scholarly, 
moralistic finger at my qualms. 

"He's an assistant Secretary of State," he continues, "and when 
he's done with that, he has a job teaching law at Georgetown." I reg- 
ister these changes. 

Chris and friend leave around four. The subject of the after- hours 
bar is dropped. Irv rounds out the evening by reading to me from 
Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind. 

"Let's see, here it is, the 'black cows' section. Listen to this: 'Beauty, 
powerless and helpless, hates understanding, because the latter ex- 
acts from it what it cannot perform.' Some people think this is really 
it, that this is where philosophy is at— particularly the preface. 'The 

54 The Mind's Eye 



Thames Weston Feb 



truth is thus the bacchanalian revel,'" he continues, "'when not a 
member is sober . . ."' and onward into the night. 

« • * 

Sunday morning we slept late. We delivered Irv's stereo speakers 
to Jan, who was borrowing them for a party later in the day, and had 
brunch at the Kiev, at Second Avenue and Seventh Street, a favorite 
of Irv's. Over the meal Irv discussed real estate with the man across 
the table, a complete stranger, and mentioned to me that Timothy 
Leary had been spending time with Bruce. 

In the afternoon we returned to Jan's. This was the heart of the 
country: a tree-trimming party consisting entirely of attorneys, with a 
few friends, lovers and children unavoidably sprinkled in. Eggnog, cook- 
ies, cocktails, trivia, A young man held forth on the presidential candi- 
dates, conveying mostly a great feeling of his own importance. Another 
introduced himself to me as someone who sold vacuum cleaners. 

"Not door-to-door, you know," he said, thinking I might have 
misunderstood, "nationaliy, internationally— marketing." 

"I don't like the country," he explained to me very earnestly when 
he heard I was from Vermont. "For me the country is a Holiday Inn 
somewhere." He was quite serious. 

Jan's apartment was an extremely comfortable but understated 
floor in a restored brownstone in Kipp's Bay, in the lower 30s. There 
was a fireplace, brick walls and a roof garden. The brick gave it a 
warm tone, the fire made it almost homey. The view Irom the roof in 
the brown, foggy evening was breathtaking. The city looked like some 
lost canyon of Eliot Porter. I've rarely felt so much in the city, so 
much a part of it. At roof height there were no streets with which to 
orient oneself, just rectangular forms of differing heights, as if sus- 
pended. The evening lights shone warmly in the fog. 

Jan has a distinct interest in older men, but there were none at 
the party, perhaps due to the presence of her grandmother, with whom 
she seemed quite close, and of whom she was extremely solicitous. 
Jan's life seems strangely divided. Her apartment was more a part of 
her public life: presentable, neutral, passionless. The passionate side 
of her life, strong in Irv's knowledgeable assessment, was invisible. 
Jan is wispy, thin, pale, wiry. She has a staying sort of energy rather 
than the assertive, muscular sort. I imagine she can bend iron when 
she tries— unhurriedly. 



The Mind's Eye 55 



Thomas Weswn Pels 



"Jan's going to be unhappy," says Irv, and continues elsewhere 
his search for the perfect mate. 

Conversation at the party ran almost entirely to their shared pro- 
fession. Most worked long hours and awkward schedules. It sounded 
like a contest to see whose were worst. Most worked on weekends at 
least some of the time, but as Irv pointed out, they like to. They are 
climbers, and that is the way to the top — one way. 

"The slow way," said Irv. 

They really did seem one -dimensional. 

"I like to shock them," said Irv. "In Cambridge, when we were 
studying for exams, and we would come across a hard problem, I 
would say something like, 'Yeah, that's difficult, It's like trying to get 
all that hair out of your teeth after making love.' Or I'll wear my 
necklace to work — you know, the one made of shells. I'll go into a 
meeting, and one of those old farts will make some comment about 
it; but when I tell him it's a present from the president of the Marshall 
Islands, that shuts him up." 

The attorneys seemed to work hard and without imagination. 
The same was true of their leisure. Being overworked, they wanted 
to do nothing the rest of the time, which is just what they seemed to be 
doing. Suddenly great expanses ot golf course took on new meaning. 

We waited out the party, unhooked the speakers and went back 
downtown. At home again, Irv lectured me on the Spanish Civil War, 
"the greatest moment for the left in this century." We had a late din- 
ner consisting entirely of parboiled, pan-fried cauliflower. Walking 
his fingers through an old atlas, he described some of his travels, from 
the Sudan to Patagonia. The train on the Pampas; dinner with a road 
crew in Argentina. At dark they simply took a lamb from a nearby 
field and roasted it whole on a spit over an open fire. 

I commented on the difference in our present situation. 

"Most of what. I know," he said, "doesn't come from books." 



56 The Mind's Eye 



Book Review 



Race Relations as End 
Game 

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter 
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002 

BY MEERA TAMAYA 



Although chosen as Today Show Pick by John Grisham, ir would 
be reductive to characierr/e Stephen Carter's expansive novel 
(653 pages) merely as a blockbuster mystery in the Grisham 
mode. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale 
University since i 982, has written nonfiction books, such as The Cul- 
ture of Disbelief and Civility. His legal expertise and involvement in cul- 
tural and racial issues make The Emperor of Ocean Park more than a 
mystery novel; rather, it is a seamless blend of mystery, satire and 
roman a clef, in which a chess problem provides the metaphoric un- 
derpinning for the overt and covert antagonism between what Carter 
terms the darker and paler nations making up the United States of 
America. 

The protagonist Talbot Garland, called Misha by family and friends, 
a professor of law at a prestigious university in the fictitious city of 
Elm Harbor (suspiciously like New Haven), receives two momentous 
phone calls on the same day: His wife, Kimmer, calls to say that she is 
one of the finalists for the federal court of appeals, while another 
phone call lets him know that, his father, a judge, has just died. It is 



The Mind's Eye 57 



Meera Tamaya 

hard to say which weighs more heavily on Misha — his relationship 
with his brilliant and vivacious wife of nine years, whom he suspects 
of having a lover, or his troubled relationship with his father, a rabid 
right-wing judge whose own nomination to the Supreme Court was 
derailed by the unsolved mystery of an adored daughter's death in a 
hit-and-run accident, which precipitates the judge's decline into bit- 
ter resentment and alcoholism. 

[n his will, the judge has bequeathed Misha the charming house 
in Ocean Park in the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, in 
which middle-class blacks have summered for decades. In the conser- 
vative judge's "often-repeated view, the Vineyard had tumbled down- 
hill, for it was crowded and noisy and besides, they let everyone in 
tiuw, by which he meant black people less noisy, well off than us" (3). 

The author skewers the pretentiousness of the elite, black and 
white alike, which not surprisingly turns out to be similar, if not iden- 
tical. The satire is intermixed with the pathos of family relationships 
gone awry, thanks largely to the judge's own dubious dealings and 
his insistence on emotional frigidity, which he thinks is the hallmark 
of the upper class. Misha, a practicing evangelical Christian who is 
not embarrassed about seeking out his pastor for counseling during 
his domestic and professional crises, is as fervently left wing as his 
father is far to the right. Misha's relationships with his brother and 
sister are believably complex and moving, and Carter's deftness in 
evoking character recalls cozy British mysteries; however, the spec- 
tacular resolution, involving a hurricane and a shoot-out on Martha's 
Vineyard, is firmly in the American hard-boiled tradition. 

The chess problem, which leads Misha to the solution of the mys- 
tery, is esoteric in the extreme, making it hard for me, a chess addict 
myself, to follow beyond the obvious metaphorjc resonance. For ex- 
ample, the epigraph to Part I of the novel is titled "Nowotny Interfer- 
ence," with the following explanation: "Nowotny interference — in 
the composition of chess problems, a theme in which the Black pieces 
obstruct one another's ability to protect vital squares." The novel's 
dedication, "for Mom, who loved a mystery, and for Dad, who is not 
in this one: I love you both, always," cleverly makes it clear even 
before the final author's note, with its customary disclaimer of any 
basis in real life, that the judge, who bears more than a passing re- 
semblance to Clarence Thomas, the highly contested conservative 



58 The Mind's Eye 



Meera Tcmaya 



nominee for the Supreme Court, whose eventual success depended 
on the sponsorship of his white friends and the denial of his own 
roots, is not based on his own father. 

In spite of the author's lengthy disclaimer, it is hard to avoid the 
gossipy parlor game of treating this mystery as a roman a clef. But the 
plot is too convoluted, the carefully nuanced cast of characters too 
huge, to make convincing connections tu real life. That the protago- 
nist bears a close resemblance to the author professionally, politically 
and religiously is undeniable, all of which makes the hook a literate 
page-turner. My only caveat is that toward the end, the author's nar- 
rative technique is too predictable, and gives off more than a whiff of 
writing by numbers — every chapter begins with a reluctant witness 
being traced with great difficulty, and ends with dropping too many 
misleading clues, among which is an infinitesimal grain of what may or 
may not be the truth. But (or a first novel, this is a very, very minor 
Haw, especially given the subtlety of characterization and the intri- 
cacy of plot, i hope Carter will write more mystery novels; 1, for one, 
shall certainly devour them. 



The Mind's Eye 59 



Book Review 



A Brainy Prole Among 
Dim Aristos 

The Gatekeeper: A Memoir by Terry Eagleion 
St. Martin's Press, 2001 

BY MEERA TAMAYA 

Terry Eagleton, the prolific Marxist critic, is best known for his 
lucid and witty Introduction to-Literary Theory (1983), which is a 
book to savor over and over again, not only for its incisive sum- 
mary of the varieties of jargon-laden literary theories — mostly ema- 
nating from France and eagerly embraced by American tenured 
academics in elite institutions — but for Eagleton 's irreverent humor, 
which refuses to take anything, except social revolution and justice 
for all, seriously. 

Besides scores of books on Marxist theory and its applications, 
Eagleton has also written a novel, Saints and Scholars, several plays 
and a screenplay for Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein. He recently re- 
signed from his position as Thomas Wharton Professor of English at 
Oxford, to accept the position of Professor of Cultural Theory at 
Manchester University. Since his writing, always passionate, always 
witty, is often directed at literary criticism, the news that he has writ- 
ten a memoir came as a surprise. Of course, Terry Eagleton being 
what he is — that is, professionally addicted to turning received wis- 
dom on its head — his memoir is not the usual exhibitionist tell-all of 
family and personal neurosis and gripes. Instead of a chronological 
narrative of his life, the book is divided into thematic chapters, titled 

60 The Mind's Eye 



Meera Tamaya 



with characteristic insouciance "Lifers," "Catholics," "Thinkers," "Po- 
liticos," "Losers." "Dons" and "Aristos, 

The opening chapter is a satirical yet deeply empathetic portrayal 
of nuns at a Carmelite convent at which as a ten-year-old altar boy 
Eagleton served as a gatekeeper who had the job of closing the gate 
on novices who took the veil and disappeared from the secular world 
for good. The description of the convent suggests incarceration for all 
"lifers," voluntary or involuntary: "It was set among walls, spiked 
with shards of glass, forbidding enough to repel voyeurs, religious 
obessiveness, nun-stalkers, sex offenders, militant Protestants, enraged 
atheists. But walls were also there to keep the occupants in" (5). The 
paradoxical theme of keeping out and keeping in enables Eagleton to 
engage in his characteristic riffs. The nuns "could pull a fast one on 
death by acting it out in their lives, performing their own demise and 
thus cheating it of its terrors. By being in but not of the world their 
existence was a kind of irony but in courting one form of irony they 
needed to avoid another" (18). 

Born in t945, raised in industrial working-class Salford ina "world 
which would no more have understood how you could make a living 
by writing books than how you could make one by picking wax from 
your ears" (51), Eagleton was a sickly child given to life-threatening 
bouts of asthma, which lorced hirn to stay in bed and read voraciously 
to pass the time. His first move away from the grimly inarticulate 
impoverishment of the Irish slum was to grammar school, and then 
on to Cambridge by the sheer strength of his intellectual brilliance. In 
the middle of bis entrance exam to Cambridge, one of the dons, Dr. 
Greenway, who later became his supervisor, comes in to tell Eagleton 
that his father who "never broke his silence . . . did not touch us or 
play with us; nothing in his own impoverished upbringing had taught 
Mm how" (22) had died. Eagleton was admitted to Cambridge any- 
way: "1 stumbled through Cambridge sick at heart. It was as though I 
had murdered to get in" (124). 

Lonely and isolated among the tall, arrogant, aristocratic fellow 
students who "brayed rather than spoke," the undersized Eagleton 
was further alienated by Dr. Greenway (not Ms real name), a blue- 
blooded Tory whom he skewers as follows: 

It was my first glimmering of differences betweeo erudition 
and intelligence, which I had always imagined went together. 

The Mind's Eye 61 



Meera Tamaya 



Greenway was certainly intelligent, but he had no more ideas 
in his head than a hamster. Indeed, he was not only bereft of 
ideas but passionately opposed to them, which struck me as a 
little odd for a doctor of philosophy. He did not see the need 
lor them, any more than he saw the need for wrapping his 
feet in asbestos or wearing a tutu, I soon discovered that his 
role as a teacher was to relieve me of my ideas, as the role of 
a burglar is to rifle your bedroom. (128) 

While a committed radical far-left activist, Eagleton, however, was 
obliged by his honesty to lampoon the left as mercilessly as he does 
the aristocrats, the dons and other right-wingers. He describes the 
far-left organization of which he was a member as follows: 

The outfit's attitude to the proletariat was rather like that of 
the Virgin Mary to the baby Jesus, reverently acknowledging 
his divinity but harboring no illusions after cleaning up his 
shit. . . Almost all its members were teachers, students, social 
workers, eccentric upper-class renegades, sucial workers, so- 
cially autistic types searching forlornly for human contact, or 
closet psychopaths eagerly anticipating a spot of revolution- 
ary violence; but dialectically speaking they were doughty 
dockers and brawny boilennakers to a man. The general idea 
was that even when they were wrong they were right, a doc- 
trine which a traditional Roman Catholic would have no 
trouble in grasping. (78-79) 

It comes as no surprise to learn that Walter Benjamin, Oscar Wilde 
and Ludwig Wittgenstein are Eagleton's heroes. Eagleton is presum- 
ably a lapsed Catholic, and one cannot quite escape the suspicion that 
his stylistic nimbleness, while always a source of intense pleasure (I try 
to read everything by him), also enables him to get away with fine- 
spun casuistry and have it both ways: to damn and to praise with sur- 
gical precision, all in the same lucid-seeming, irony-packed sentence 
worthy of a verbal contortionist. You find yourself smiling and agree- 
ing with what he says, then at the end, asking yourself, wait a minute, 
how did he get from there to here, from total negation to affirmation 
or vice versa? Is style all, as Oscar Wilde would have it? Perhaps it is. 
And why not? In this grim world, batted about by forces we cannot 
control, personal style is a small triumph. And literary style, because of 
the enduring pleasure it affords, is no small victory over the odds. 

62 The Mind's Eye 



Contributors 



Thomas Weston Pels is an independent curator and writer specializ- 
ing in American culture, photography and art. His most recent exhibi- 
tion, "Fire and Ice: Treasures from the Photograph Collection of Frederic 
Church at Olana," was shown at the Dahesh Museum in New York 
and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Its companion volume has 
been nominated for the Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Award of the College Art 
Association, the Philip Johnson Award of the Society of Architectural 
Historians and the Wittenborn Memorial Book Award of the Art Li- 
brary Society of North America. He currently serves as curator of the 
new Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum at the Southern Vermont Arts 
Center in Manchester, Vermont. 

Karen Pepper teaches composition in the English/Communications 
Department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She has deliv- 
ered papers at several professional conferences and writes poetry as 
well as academic prose. 

Graziana Ramsden teaches modern languages at Massachusetts 
College of Liberal Arts. She is a Fulbright scholar and recipient of 
the Erasmus Scholarship at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 
Spain, She has traveled widely and presented several papers at foreign- 
language conferences in the United Slates. 

Meera Tamaya is a professor of English at Massachusetts College of 
Liberal Arts, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare and other dis- 
tinguished writers. Her most recent book is An Interpretation of Hamlet 
Based on Recent Developments in Cognitive Studies. She is the author of the 
book Colonial Detection: H. R. F. Keating, as well as articles on John 
Sherwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Pym and 
Shakespeare. 



The Mind's Eye 63 



Spring 2003 Issue 

Noah Blaustein Peter Cooley 
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64 The Mind's Eye 



Mind's Eye 

Writer's Guidelines 

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Submissions should adhere to these guidelines: 

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